Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Professor Defends Capitalism (1991)

A Capitalism versus Socialism debate from the December 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Serious consideration of alternatives to capitalism needs to address: the nature of capitalism; its validity as an instrument of progress; the threat from existing alternatives; and the plausibility and cost/benefit ratio of socialist alternatives.

The nature of capitalism
The real nature of capitalism is widely misunderstood, especially by intellectuals. Over and above ignorance, there is widespread prejudice.This serves to confuse description with evaluation, and fosters naive wish-fulfillment.

Capitalism is not inherently or by definition exploitative, cruel and arbitrary, or unjust. These are empirical issues, to be judged as part of the objective evaluation of capitalism in terms of relevant evidence and reasoned argument.

Capitalism is a specific mode of organising society, and in particular the economy. It is a recent and rare phenomenon in human social development. It should not be confused with other completely distinct forms of social organisation.

Capitalism is characterised by: cultural individualism; private property; private ownership and control of capital; effective laws of contract; competitive markets shaped by the pursuit of profit; the key role of entrepreneurs; real prices; free labour; liberal political democracy; and limited government.

The benefits of capitalism
By comparison with other systems, capitalism has one major built-in advantage. The freedom which it structurally requires, permits it to learn from its mistakes, and to adapt flexibly and rapidly. In addition, analysis of the historical record demonstrates, quite contrary to socialist allegations, that capitalism has powerfully beneficial effects.

It creates massive wealth, dissipates it widely, and destroys poverty. The "poverty" celebrated so noisily by the Poverty Lobby is "relative poverty" for the most part. This is inequality rather than genuine poverty.

Capitalism requires some—modest and changing—economic inequalities, to provide incentive and aspiration. But capitalism eliminates destructive social in¬equalities. It keeps even economic in¬equalities modest by comparison with all save primitive societies.

Socialists' moral castigation of capitalism is as unjustified as their economic critique. Empirical research reveals — despite recessions and the risk of unemployment — extraordinarily high levels of work and life satisfaction, widespread positive commitment to opportunity and social mobility, and remarkable achievements in self-expression and spiritual development. Moral denunciations of capitalism, such as Erich Fromm's The Sane Society, are invariably emotional, hysterical, and contradicted by the evidence.

Immigrants flood out of all sorts of evil systems into capitalist societies. They are pursuing, first, an escape from poverty, secondly freedom, and third, the dream — which is no mere fantasy — of a good life for themselves and their families in the truest sense of the concept of good so far available. Ironically, it is the supposedly destructive features of capitalism — property, profit, competition, and the market — which are the sources and causes of its economic and moral success and its magnetic attraction for outsiders.

Real alternatives
There are existing alternatives to capitalism which challenge its pre-eminence. They do this either as rivals' for control of humanity's destiny — for example Islamic theocracy, and the decaying remains of "actually existing socialism"; or as exemplars of the conditions into which we might fall if we lose faith in capitalism — for example the barbarous despotisms of much of the third world.

It is much more likely that we may decay into one or other of these regressive models, than that any of the apparently more positive alternatives on offer will be established. Should that happen, as it easily might if we fail to treasure freedom, democracy, and capitalism, and to protect them from their critics, the future is bleak indeed. It was ill-founded socialist criticism of capitalist democracy in pre-war Germany which sowed the seeds of Fascism.

Socialist alternatives
The major alternative to capitalism proffered throughout this century by self-styled socialists has now been exposed once and for all as a moral and economic disaster, and as infinitely worse in every respect than capitalism. "Actually existing socialism" is and always was objectively regressive.

Anti-Stalinist socialists who nonetheless acclaim 1917 remain influential. But the mistakes were as much Lenin's as Stalin's. There is no real threat to capitalism from this quarter.

This leaves the minority of Marxist socialists who have always condemned Lenin and dictatorship, and the idealistic, allegedly non-Marxist, socialists whose anti-capitalist utopianism permeates intellectual life in the free world. Socialism in this sense is a permanently retreating mirage of empirical analysis and defensively resistant to rational critique:

• Its postulate of an infinitely elastic human nature is wholly implausible.
• Its concept of democratic planning as a replacement for the market would impoverish us all.
• Its objections to property, wage labour, competition, economic inequalities, and in the last resort money are grounded in a gross misreading of history and the human psyche.
• Its dream of a "peaceful socialist world" is a major threat to the natural and gradual evolution of a community of co-operatively competing nations, each and all of them prosperous, capitalist, and democratic.

In short, to quote a respected authority, "there is no alternative".
Professor David Marsland, West London Institute.

Key References
P. Berger, The Capitalist Revolution (Gower, 1987). F. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Routledge, 1988). D. Marsland, Seeds of Bankruptcy (Claridge Press, 1988). A. Seldon, Capitalism (Blackwell, 1990).

Marsland's magical capitalism repudiated
Those who seek to defend the capitalist system and prove the case against the socialist alternative are usually disappointing, often pitifully so. Too often they exhibit little understanding of what the system of capitalism is and no serious awareness of what the socialist alternative is. Added to this are archaic notions about "human nature" and "the human psyche" which are the last resorts of the confused thinker. Scratch a pro-capitalist sociologist and you will find a priest, his mind packed full of ridiculous ideas about the immutability of existing human behaviour and social organisation.

Professor Marsland's attempt at defining capitalism is inadequate. He correctly states that "competitive markets shaped by the pursuit of profit" characterise capitalism, but also speaks of "free labour". In fact, the pursuit of profit is only achievable on the basis of exploited labour.

Unless labour power is legally exploited, unless, that is, wealth producers are paid wages and salaries which are less than the value of what they produce, not a penny, cent, rouble or yen of profit could even be produced. But for Marsland it is simple enough to state that "capitalism is not inherently or by definition exploitative". Without the exploitation of wage labour, how on earth does he think capital could ever be accumulated?

Socialists are urged by the professor to evaluate capitalism empirically and objectively. This is good scientific advice and we take it seriously. Alas, the educator needs to be educated, for, as well as his failure to explain how profits can arise other than through exploitation of wage labour, our opponent makes several wildly unjustifiable observations about capitalism which are empirically false. We shall deal with just three of them.

Wealth, waste and want
Firstly, we are told that capitalism "creates massive wealth, disseminates it widely, and destroys poverty". Capitalism creates massive wealth — and is faced with periodic crises of overproduction, which means that too much wealth has been produced for the market. So, food is dumped or locked in warehouses and farm owners are paid subsidies to take land out of cultivation while in other parts of the capitalist world (capitalism dominates the whole planet) every single year 15 million children under five die of starvation and malnutrition-caused diseases. Society is capable of producing the "massive wealth" of which Marsland boasts, but the profit priority dictates that such potential abundance be constrained or destroyed.

The claim that capitalism disseminates wealth widely is absurd. In fact, in Britain the richest 10 percent own half of all marketable wealth and the poorest 75 percent of the British population, i. e., the vast majority, own less accumulated wealth than the richest 5 percent (Economic Trends, October 1990). This extreme wealth concentration in the hands of the privileged few is the basis of capitalism.

More crazy still is the claim that capitalism "destroys poverty". Poverty is defined by socialists as the gap between wealth (goods and services) which is produced and what workers have access to. But even on the Conservative government's own empirical data, "official poverty" (the number of people forced to live on less than half the average income) has increased from just under 5 million in 1979 to just under 12 million in 1988 (Daily Telegraph, 23 October 1991). So, according to sociologists working on data supplied by the government which Marsland has faith in, poverty has increased, not been destroyed. Professor Marsland should go and tell the homeless beggars on the streets of London, whose numbers grow by the week, or the starving millions in the world whose kids scream with hunger pains, that capitalism "destroys poverty".

Insoluble problems
Secondly, we are informed that capitalism "learns from its mistakes" and adapts "flexibly and rapidly". This is a justification for the futile policy of reformism, of patching up capitalism. We challenge Professor Marsland to tell us of one basic problem of capitalism, from homelessness to unemployment to racism to pollution, which any government running capitalism has ever remedied. All of these problems have been presented as "mistakes" to be rectified by government reform. In fact, these problems are endemic to the system of production for profit.

Increasing misery
Thirdly, capitalism is said to offer "extraordinary levels of work and life satisfaction" and critiques of capitalism by writers such as Fromm are dismissed as being "invariably emotional" and "hysterical". Such abuse is easy, but it is less easy for pro-capitalist sociologists to explain away the escalation of a massive, escapist drug culture, the rise of frustrated urban violence, the existence of mass tranquiliser addiction caused by anxieties generated by ruthless competition and dull frustration, or the fact that millions of workers fear the indignities of old age or the living hell which characterises numerous boring jobs. It is not "hysterical" to recognise the widespread sense that the quality of life is worsening under the strain of the profit system, but to ignore the increase of working class misery is to display an insensitive unwillingness to face the facts.

What "socialism"?
Professor Marsland misunderstands capitalism, but is totally in the dark about the meaning of socialism. He seems to think that it exists somewhere, but does not tell us where. He rightly observes that Leninism-Stalinism offered "no real threat to capitalism", but then repeats the foolish remarks of those who refer to Leninist state capitalism as "actually existing socialism". With confused definitions of this kind, what hope is there for our opponent to have anything sensible to say about socialism? He opposes "democratic planning as a replacement for the market", but this is probably an attack on centralised, state planning which is a left-wing capitalist policy for regulating the market. We doubt whether Professor Marsland has ever seriously thought about the possibility of real democracy where all resources belong to everyone, production is for use and there is free access for all. If he had, he would not conclude that this would "impoverish us all".

Human nature again
The bottom line of Marsland's attack upon what he dismisses as "anti-capitalist utopianism" is that socialists' idea of "an infinitely elastic human nature" is unrealistic because "property, wage labour, competition, economic inequalities and . . . money" are grounded in "the human psyche". This is unhistorical. All of the above are part of social relationships which did not once exist and need not exist in the future. Money is no more a function of the natural human thought process than were witch burning or slavery. Our opponent is a poor sociologist, but no historian at all. The lesson of history is that society changes. Alas, Professor Marsland does not comprehend the structure of the capitalist present (which he thinks will last forever) nor the nature of the materially-based socialist alternative (which he thinks is not for humans) and therefore, like priests of old, he falls back upon unscientific, morally dubious, metaphysical nonsense about the evil nature of human beings. We pity the wage slaves who are convinced by such pessimistic lack of social vision.
Steve Coleman

Capitalism, socialism and ecology (1985)

From the Winter 1985-6 issue of the World Socialist

In 1871 a German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, coined the word "ecology". It derives from the Greek word "Oikos" meaning "house" or "habitat" and can be defined as the study of relationships between organisms and their environment or natural habitat.

Ecology is closely related to the subject oL economics, the latter springing from the same root means literally ""the management of a household". However, the significance of this association is not simply a matter of etymological interest. Undoubtedly this is what Sunderlal Bahunga, a prominent figure in the Indian Chipko movement, had in mind when he replied to a reporter who had asked him how he could resolve the conflict between ecology and economic development. His answer was succinct and to the point: for him there was no such conflict since ecology was in fact just "long-term economics".

And yet if we look at the world around us today we cannot fail to notice the extent to which nature is being ravaged in the name of short-term economic gain. It is all too clear that the prevailing economic system of capitalist competition is quite incapable of seriously taking into account the long-term considerations with which ecology is vitally concerned. Only where the system's immediate objective of profit maximisation is threatened does it become expedient to act upon such considerations. Some might say that this does not really matter when all is said and done. The technological conquest of nature, they suggest, has somehow enabled man to become independent of it. In Small is Beautiful E.F. Schumacher quotes a representative voice from this school of thought, that of Eugene Rabinowitch, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

The only animals whose disappearance may threaten the biological viability of man on earth are the bacteria normally inhabiting our bodies. For the rest, there is no evidence that mankind could not survive even as the only species on earth! If economical ways could be developed for synthesising food from inorganic materials - which is likely to happen sooner or later - man will even be able to become independent of plants on which he now depends as sources of his food.
But whatever the technical merits (or otherwise) of such a claim, for the foreseeable future it is safe to assume that mankind will continue to rely heavily on agriculture - that is to say, on the natural processes harnessed by agriculture - for its food.
The charge of "technological triumphalism" is one that has sometimes been levelled at Marxism. Yet it was Engels who produced one of the most cogent rebuttals of precisely this point of view, when addressing himself to the question of man's relationship with nature:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquests 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 cultivatable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of those countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture . . .

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 know and correctly apply its laws. ("The part played by labour in the transition from Ape to Man" Dialectics of Nature, 1940, pp.291-2).

As an apology for an ecological perspective this could hardly be bettered. But before examining what such a perspective entails for harnessing nature for the production of food, let us look briefly at the view that it is the pressure of population as such that has caused the environment to deteriorate.

In 1798 the Rev Thomas Malthus published the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he outlined his "law of population":

Assuming then, my postulate as granted, I say that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.
According to Malthus, since population cannot be sustained beyond a level that the means of subsistence can provide for, it is held in check, though the way in which it is held in check is rather more complicated than in the case of plants and animals. Here he suggested that social attitudes might play a role as a "preventive" check inasmuch as people might feel compelled by economic circumstances to exercise restraint in reproduction. Whether they would exercise restraint, Malthus doubted, though he placed greater importance on this in subsequent editions of his Essay. But in so doing, he contradicted the broad thrust of his argument, embodying as it did, a strong belief in biological determinism.

Beyond prevention, "positive checks" in the form of war, famine and disease work to ensure that the population is "kept to its necessary level". In other words, argued Malthus, the sheer pressure of population growth as it comes up against the limits of subsistence "constantly tends to subject the lower classes of society to distress and prevent any great melioration of their condition". He suggested that if this were more widely understood, the "lower classes" might come to accept their poverty with greater forbearance and "less irritation at the government and the higher classes of society".

Malthus' theory was effectively demolished by the developments that came after him. The population of Britain grew rapidly but the productive forces grew even more so as the Industrial Revolution unfolded. What made possible this rapid population growth was the decline in mortality as a result in the long-term rise in general living standards, particularly in the form of improved diet and sanitation. Moreover as the death rate declined so the birth rate began to fall, eventually causing population growth itself to slow down.

However, whilst population growth was "checked" this occurred well within the Malthusian limits of bare subsistence. Indeed far from it being a case of the stork relentlessly following the plough, the gap between the two has considerably widened in historical terms with the stork lagging well behind, thus exploding the Malthusian dogma that the "indefinitely greater" power of reproduction would reduce any such gap to the merest sliver. The fact that the population of Britain is several times larger today than it was when Malthus was alive only highlights all the more, the tremendous growth of the forces of production that has occurred since then - something which Malthus' grim fatalism could not anticipate.

But whilst such growth is undeniable, equally undeniable is the fact that it has been accompanied by an increasing disruption of the "balance of nature". Though mankind is not the only species to modify nature for its own purposes the sheer scale of its impact makes it unique and, according to some, poses the threat of irreversibly undermining nature's capacity to provide food for mankind in the future. Technological progress may well have pushed back the Malthusian limits to the point of irrelevance but, goes the argument, the environmental consequences of such progress are such that those limits threaten to close in again like a noose around mankind's neck.

In this rather more sophisticated form, Malthusian ideas have acquired a certain plausibility. Nevertheless, this neo-Malthusian model has in common with its famous forerunner a major weakness inasmuch as it consistently overlooks the social context in which it makes its gloomy prognoses. According to Colin Tudge in The Famine Business:

Many societies in the past - in sixteenth century England or fourth century Rome — have believed that their societies had outgrown their resources. In truth they had merely come against the limitations of their agricultural techniques - or, more accurately, against the limitations of the policies that those techniques subserved. To some extent the present world situation is similar. We have not exceeded physical capacity but have merely begun to expose the flaws in policies not designed to feed all the people.
In nature, the various plant and animal organisms are intricately interlinked by relationships of mutual dependence on one another and their physical environment. These living communities together with the environmental conditions in which they occur, constitute an ecosystem. This can be a single drop of water containing myriads of micro-organisms or, at the other extreme, the total envelope of life around the earth, the global ecosystem or biosphere. Necessarily, every ecosystem tends towards a "steady state" of dynamic balance which means that by altering any one part of it every other part is thereby affected, a new equilibrium being reached through a complex network of inter-locking cycles through which energy and nutrients flow.

In the process of evolution life on earth was built in a series of layers or "trophic levels" which together form the "biotic pyramid". At the base of this pyramid are organisms called "autotrophs". Autotrophs "fix" minerals from rock and nitrogen from the air to form a nutrient reservoir that is greatly enlarged by the decomposition of organic material returned to the soil. These nutrients are absorbed through the roots of plants with the aid of water. Green plants trap less than 1 per cent of the sun's energy falling on the earth and use it to build energy-rich compounds in a process called photosynthesis. Some of these compounds are combined with nutrients from the soil to form other, more complex compounds such as protein. The total amount of chemical energy stored in plants far exceeds human nutritional requirements and could theoretically support a population 280 times greater^ttan the present one. However, the great bulk of plant matter is unsuitable for human consumption. Autotrophs and plants are respectively known as primary and secondary food producers. Above them come the various levels of food consumers.

The primary consumers or herbivores eat plants and are in turn eaten by carnivores or secondary consumers. These may be eaten by other carnivores or tertiary consumers and so on. Thus food is passed from one trophic level to the next along a food chain.

It is worth noting however that as we move up a food chain, only a small fraction of the energy input at one level, as represented by the food consumed by an organism, is made available to the next level when that organism is itself consumed. The remainder of this energy is "lost" in maintaining the organism's existence. In other words, for a certain mass of organisms to survive at one level there must be a substantially larger mass of organisms at the level beneath it; hence the idea of a biotic pyramid. The total mass of organisms that an ecosystem can support is called the "biomass" which is determined by a combination of environmental factors such as climate and soil that impinge most crucially at the level of food producers.

The implications of this telescoping of the food supply along a food chain are potentially significant. One might suppose that mankind could increase its food supply by changing its dietary habits, by eating less meat and more grain, for example. Altogether some 650 million tonnes of grain representing a third of the world's output are currently fed to livestock each year. But on average, every 7 calories of grain fed to livestock produces only 1 calorie of animal product, beef production being the least efficient form of conversion. On the other hand, it could also be argued that the production of animal products for human consumption is justified insofar as animals are able to transform otherwise inedible or unutilised plants and grasses into valuable food for humans.

In reality, however, food chains such as that connecting cereals, cattle and man present only part of the picture of an ecosystem. To begin with, nutrient flows are not linear and ever-ascending as the concept of a biotic pyramid might suggest. Rather, such flows can be described as cyclical. The waste products of organisms and, on their death, their bodies are broken down by other organisms known as decomposers that are similarly arranged in layers that form, as it were, an inverted pyramid. This decaying organic material called humus is progressively broken down into simple elements that are once again taken up through the roots of plants as was earlier pointed out. In this way nutrients are continuously recycled within the ecosystem.

Furthermore, as we saw in the case of the food chain connecting cereals, cattle and man, some species - in this instance, man - may have a highly diverse or changeable diet that entails consuming food from several different levels within the biotic pyramid. Such species are, in other words, omnivorous. More realistically, nature can be said to support not so much a host of separate food chains as a complex web of relationships through which checks are applied on the population of a species whereby its outer limits are determined by the population size of other species that constitute its food supply.

Agriculture is essentially a process by which the stored energy of photosynthesis is appropriated by man. This has meant in the first place, the selection and cultivation of certain crops at the expense of other species and secondly, the development of these cultivated varieties with a view to increasing their yield. According to Norman Myers:

Mankind has used around 3000 plants for food during the course of history. Yet Earth contains at least another 75,000 edible plants. Only about 150 have ever been cultivated on a large scale, and fewer than 20 now produce 90 per cent of our food. We are using the same limited number of plant species that have served mankind for millennia. (Guardian, 3 February 1983).
In nature, an ecosystem tends to develop successionally, that is, from a simple "pioneer" stage towards the maximum complexity that the physical conditions of a particular area can accommodate. The final stage in this process of "ecological succession" is called the "climax community". This contains a highly diverse range of species whose populations fluctuate little over time. A climax community is, in other words, a relatively stable and balanced ecosystem.

With the introduction of agriculture the tendency is for an ecosystem to shift backwards along the line of ecological succession as many natural forms of vegetation are replaced by a few cultivated varieties. Thus, generally speaking, agriculture has had a destabilising impact on the environment by reducing its complexity and hence its capacity to adapt to ecological disturbances. Up to a point this is unavoidable. There is bound to be a degree of tension between the needs of agriculture and the maintenance of environmental integrity. Inasmuch as food is an absolute necessity for mankind there can be no question as to which of these ought to take priority over the other. What can be questioned, however, is the foolish belief that the production of food can take place without regard to the environmental consequences of this for ultimately the harmonisation of agriculture with nature, the achievement of a workable compromise between them, is vital to the maintenance of a productive and lasting agriculture itself.

The reduction in the complexity of an ecosystem amounts to a severe rupture of the intricate food web that sustains a diverse community of plants and animals. As a result more and more species begin to disappear from the ecosystem. However, as this happens other species begin to expand to fill the ecological niche opened up for them, to emerge as pests able to exploit the simplified landscape around them. Weeds, for example, compete with crops for nutrients in the soil. But in some cases the too efficient removal of weeds can prove counter-productive in that herbivorous insects can be driven to feed on the crop itself as the only available food supply. Thus what began as a problem of too many weeds can end up as a problem of pest infestation. This interplay of ecological factors is apparent at the top end of a food chain as well. In Sierra Leone, for example, farmers discovered that their crops were being increasingly damaged by small vervet monkeys whose numbers had swelled considerably. On investigation it was found that the reason for this was the decline in the population of leopards whose habitat was being destroyed by the clearance of forests for agriculture. In short, the self-regulating function of the ecosystem was beginning to break down and to veer towards greater instability.

On a global basis this alteration in the natural balance is taking place on a massive and unprecedented scale:
According to the results of an investigation published by the University of Hamburg in December 1975, 50,000 species will be eradicated or seriously threatened in the coming twenty-five years. At the other end of the scale 240 species of insects, including mites and ticks, are increasing at an alarming rate. (W. Van Dieren and M.G.W. Hummelinck, Nature's Price, 1979, p.4).
The conventional response to the growth of pests has been to attack them with chemical pesticides. These can bring about rapid and dramatic improvements in the available food supply in the short-term by cutting losses both on land and in storage. In a single year - in 1973 - the value of crop loss due to pests amounted to a staggering $75 billion. Clearly the selective use of chemical pesticides on a world basis in a socialist society could help in the transformation of hunger into a thing of the past.

But pesticides have their drawbacks too. In particular, they tend to decimate the predators of pests more effectively than the pests themselves. The reason for this lies in the fact that the herbivorous insects that eat crops are more numerous than the carnivorous insects that prey upon them, being at a lower level in the biotic pyramid. This being the case there is a greater likelihood of genetic variation among such insects that would lead them to acquire resistance to a pesticide.

Furthermore, there is a tendency for pesticides like DDT which remain toxic over long periods to become more and more concentrated as it is passed up the food chain. Because of this, "DDT is banned in most industrialised countries but its overall use is still increasing and the effects are spread globally by wind and water" (S. Croall and W. Rankin, Ecology for Beginners, 1981, p.59). Thus, as is so often the case in capitalism, legislative attempts to overcome a particular problem are undermined by the competitive pressure that drives others to perpetrate that problem which cannot by its very nature be contained within boundaries of the nation state.

In the long run biological methods of pest control such as the introduction into an environment of the traditional - or novel -predators of pests, is very often the soundest approach. But once again the competitive thrust of capitalism, ever attentive to the opportunity for short-term gain, militates against the wisdom of an ecological perspective:

The results of biological control may take some years to show whereas an insecticide acts immediately. Control has to be applied over a whole region (preferably an island) rather than just one farm . . . And it may not be too cynical to suggest that there is less commercial interest in biological than in chemical control because it is, in ideal cases, done once and for all rather than every year. (N.W. Pirie, Food Resources, Conventional and Novel, 1967, p.71).
In the 19th century the agricultural chemist, Justus Von Liebig, formulated his famous "law of the minimum" which states that plant growth is limited by the availability of whatever nutrient is scarcest. There are 16 basic elements that are absolutely essential to the growth of plants and can be divided into 3 groups. The first consists of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen which are derived from air and water. Nitrogen, Potassium and Calcium form another group called the major plant nutrients in that they are required in large quantities whilst the remaining ten elements make up the final group, the minor nutrients. These basic elements can be combined in different ways to form a vast number of compounds which in turn are used to build even more complex molecules such as protein as we earlier saw.

The most common limiting factor in agriculture is nitrogen, a crucial constituent of protein. Though most of the earth's atmosphere consists of nitrogen it is of no use to plants in this form; it has to be "fixed" - that is, combined with other elements - in the form of compounds such as nitrate, that can be absorbed through the roots of plants.

There are several sources from which plants obtain a supply of fixed nitrogen. A certain amount of it derives from atmospheric fixation as a result of lightning but the great bulk of it is produced by biological and, to an increasing extent, industrial fixation processes.

As far as the process of biological fixation is concerned, two broad sets of micro-organisms in the soil make nitrogen available to plants. The first set are the nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms that form part of the population of autotrophs. Some of these micro-organisms such as the blue-green algae are "free-living", whilst others live in symbiotic association with the roots of leguminous plants and certain tropical grasses. The significance of this latter group of nitrogen-fixing micro¬organisms is that by planting the sort of crops with which they are associated the fertility of the soil can be enhanced rather than depleted as is normally the case.

At the opposite end of the nutrient cycle are a second set of micro¬organisms that make nitrogen available to plants. These are called nitrifying bacteria in that they convert the amino acids that make up the protein in decomposing humus (which is, in fact, the major source of nitrogen in the soil) into nitrate. An important characteristic of nitrifying bacteria is that they are aerobic, that is, they must have oxygen in order to live. Moreover the concentration of nitrates they release into the soil water is very low so that the plants themselves have to expend energy to pull in these nitrates - a process that requires plant roots have access to oxygen as well. To ensure enough oxygen is available the soil must be sufficiently porous to let in air and in this respect, humus plays a vital role by maintaining soil structure. Furthermore, a good soil structure allows rainwater to penetrate deeper into the soil where it can be better retained.

A final and increasingly significant source of fixed nitrogen is artificial fertiliser, a by-product of oil-refining technology.

Nitrogen is, of course, also removed from the soil in a number of ways. The activities of nitrifying bacteria are offset by those of other bacteria called denitrifying bacteria which convert nitrate into nitrogen gas, some of which may be utilised by nitrogen fixing bacteria, some of which escapes into the atmosphere. Denitrifying bacteria are anaerobic, however, that is, they can only function in the absence of oxygen. In other words, the poorer the soil structure, the greater the loss of nitrogen from it. This once again underlines the importance of humus to the soil.

Furthermore nitrates being soluble in water can be lost by leaching, by being brought up to the surface and washed away by rain. This is particularly a problem in the humid Tropics where the luxuriant vegetation belies the poor fertility of the soil in which it grows. Because of the high temperatures, humus decomposes very rapidly whilst the heavy rainfall can cause serious leaching. Tropical plants have adapted to these conditions in that they are able to absorb nutrients rapidly whilst at the same time providing a canopy of leaves that protects the soil from the elements. The destruction of tropical forests soon leads to a loss of fertility which imposes severe constraints on the type of agriculture that can be practised in these areas.

The most obvious way in which nitrogen is removed from the soil is of course the harvesting of crops. To make good this loss of nitrogen, human and animal wastes can be returned to the soil but the tendency of capitalist agriculture has been to dispense with this practice. Marx, who had studied the work of Von Liebig, Schonbein and other agricultural chemists was strongly critical of this tendency which, he argued, sprang from the dynamic thrust of capitalist development:

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population on the one hand, concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer. (Capital, Vol 1, FLPH, p.505).

But Marx, of course, was writing at a time when artificial fertilisers were unknown. At that time most of the land in Europe was fertilised with sodium nitrate which was to be found in large natural deposits on the coast of Chile, though organic feritiliser such as guano was also used to . some extent. However, by the turn of the century, these deposits appeared to be reaching exhaustion and it became imperative that alternative sources of fertiliser should be found. This was the stimulus that led to the discovery of a technique for manufacturing fertiliser, known as the Haber Bosch process, by which most of the nitrogen-based fertilisers are produced today.

Nevertheless, the impact of artificial fertilisers has by no means been an entirely unmixed blessing. The steady increase in yields, fuelled in part by the soaring use of these fertilisers as a substitute for organic fertilisers, has served to obscure the long-term decline in soil structure and to blunt efforts to halt this. Lester Brown and Edward Wolf in a report on Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy published by the Worldwatch Institute in 1984 pointed to:

the severity of soil erosion and its implications for future agricultural production worldwide. Between 1977 and 1982, 1.7 billion tonnes of soil were lost each year in the US; 44 per cent of American farmland is now losing soil faster than it is being replaced, mainly by it being washed and blown away. Crop monoculture is largely to blame, and productivity has been maintained only by massive doses of fertilisers which have so far succeeded in masking the enormity of the losses (from summary of report in Guardian, 9 May 1985).

According to a report to the American Congress, an estimated $1,200 million worth of fertilisers would have been needed in 1978 simply to replace the nutrients lost through soil erosion in that year (The Ecologist, July/Aug/Sept 1980). Moreover as soil structure deteriorates with the loss of humus so the application of chemical fertilisers becomes less efficient, more and more of it being lost through leaching and run-off leading to serious pollution of waterways. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the application of such fertilisers is subject to the law of diminishing returns. US agriculture, for example, has to use 5 times as much fertiliser today as it did in 1947 to produce the same amount of crop. (S. Croall and W. Rankin, Ecology for Beginners, p.55). Such long-term costs of chemically-fertilised agriculture have recently prompted some interest in certain aspects of organic farming. Not that this is likely to bring about any significant shift in farming methods under present conditions of capitalism, however. For a study carried out by the US Department of Agriculture in 1981 found that, whilst organic farms were 2.5 times more productive per unit of energy consumed than conventional farms, they were also less profitable. This was "largely due to the rotation system under which as much as 60 per cent of the land must be planted with nitrogen-fixing legumes at any one time". (New Scientist, 19 March 1983). Furthermore, they are likely to incur higher labour costs in that more labour is involved in such tasks as the hauling and spreading of compost or manure or in handweeding in the case of certain crops. For the individual farmer under competitive pressure to maximise his return on the resources at his disposal - be it land or labour - it is difficult indeed to adopt more ecologically prudent methods of farming where this demands a degree of resistance to such pressure.

Marx writing in 1867, had already commented on the destructive impact of profit-motivated agriculture on the environment:
Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combination together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer. (Capital, Vol I, pp.506-7).
In 1948 Marx's warning was echoed by William Vogt, Chief of the Conservation Section of the Pan-American Union:
One of the most ruinous limiting factors is the capitalistic system - and this is one of the gravest criticisms that can be leveled against it. The methods of free competition and the application of the profit motive have been disastrous to the land . . .
Throughout virtually the entire world, land is not used to produce the crop best adapted to it on a permanent basis but to produce as much cash as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible - the same system exalted by the manufacturer, (quoted in J.A. Barnett, The Human Species, 1971, p.208).
Since then the situation has deteriorated alarmingly. It is quite true that output has grown substantially in the meantime. In the period 1960-80, for example, whilst world population increased by 48 per cent, total cereal production rose by no less than 75 per cent (though a greater proportion of it was diverted into livestock feed than ever before). But, as Lester Brown and Edward Wolf put it in their Worldwatch Institute report on soil erosion, this impressive growth in production has been achieved by a process of more or less "mining" the soil, "converting a renewable resource into a non-renewable one". Almost everywhere, the land is being impoverished; its fertility flushed down the world's rivers, borne away by its winds or simply buried under an expanding carpet of concrete. In all some 25 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil are lost each year throughout the world because of excessive erosion associated mainly with agriculture.

How might socialist society approach the problem of maintaining soil fertility? Firstly, with regard to chemical fertilisers, there are today enormous regional disparities in the use of such fertilisers. Built into this pattern is a tremendous waste of agricultural potential:
A ton of fertiliser applied in a previously unfertilized area (i.e. most of the underdeveloped world) can produce up to ten extra tons of grain, whereas an extra ton spread in the developed world will not produce more than a maximum of three extra tons because of the law of diminishing returns. While one ton more of fertiliser matters only marginally to those countries that already have the best yields, it matters vitally to those who are still far from self-sufficient in food production. (S. George, How the Other Half Dies, 1980, p.302).
In other words, even without any increase in the global use of chemical fertilisers, food production could be significantly expanded were such a resource to be more rationally distributed. In socialist society, free of the constraints of the marketplace, it would of course be entirely feasible to allocate resources in such a way as to ensure their most productive use. Underpinning this freedom would be the unity of common purpose, a unity forged in the basic structure of a society in which all had free and equal access to the wealth that society produced.

Secondly, socialist society would obviously want to halt and reverse the long-term decline in soil fertility by improving the humus content of the soil. Not only would this make for the more efficient absorption of chemical fertilisers but would help contain further topsoil loss as a result of erosion. Whilst this would involve more labour intensive work which would require a larger agricultural workforce it should be borne in mind that one of the greatest productive advantages of socialism over capitalism is that it would release a tremendous amount of labour for socially productive work. At least half of the workforce today are engaged in activities that, although vital to the operation of a modern capitalist economy would have no purpose in a society where production was directly and solely geared to the satisfaction of human needs.

Thirdly, and most importantly, as a society freed from the profit motive and competitive pressures "to produce as much cash as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible", socialism will be able to adopt agricultural methods which achieve a working compromise with nature (for, as explained, all agriculture unavoidably upsets the pre¬existing ecosystem to a greater or lesser extent) respecting the long-term considerations which ecological science teaches are vitally important.
Robin Cox (Britain)