Sunday, May 2, 2021

Metabolic Materialism (2021)

Book Review from the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

A New Introduction to Karl Marx: New Materialism, Critique of Political Economy, and the Concept of Metabolism. By Ryuji Sasaki, translated by Michael Schauerte, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

This book examines the theories of Marx stated in the above subtitle, particularly their significance to the transformation of society. The focus is on one of Marx’s most famous works, Capital, but it is not intended to be an introduction to that work. Marx came to reject the realm of philosophical ideas as an explanation of the world (common at the time) preferring the insight that his basic world-view is ‘the actual, given relations of life’ and this ‘method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one’ (Capital, Volume 1, 1867). This is what was new about Marx’s method and it is a succinct explanation of the relationship between materialism, science and socialism.

The first volume of Marx’s Capital has the subtitle ‘A Critique of Political Economy’ and is not merely a work of political economy (or economics, as it would be called today). For instance, in Marx’s day many economists accepted ‘Say’s Law’ (after the French economist JB Say) which asserted that production creates its own demand. Some economists today still accept this and argue that any imbalances between production and consumption are temporary and ‘self-clearing’. In this view, crises are impossible. Sasaki argues that, for Marx, it is the money economy which makes crises possible. Buying and selling in the aggregate is inherently unpredictable and, Marx wrote, ‘crises cannot occur without the circulation of money’.

Metabolism is a concept that became well known in the nineteenth century through the work of the chemist Justus von Liebig, becoming a more broadly encompassing term that included not only the chemical changes that individual organisms undergo but also the interaction between living organisms and their surrounding environment. The term metabolism began to influence not only the natural but also the social sciences, and was used analogously within political economy to refer to the circular, organic activity of human beings in-volved in production, distribution, and consumption.

Marx first used the term metabolism in 1851 as an analogy to explain the cyclical activity of society as an organism. All the way through to his writing of Capital, Marx continued to use the term in the sense of organic economic activity. However, Sasaki argues that Marx’s use of metabolism was not limited to that meaning. Eventually he began to use the term to express the material circulation between human beings and nature. Capitalism is a disturbance of the metabolism; socialism will restore the metabolism. For Marx, socialism will be a society in which the ‘associated producers’ will ‘govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, … accomplishing this metabolism with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.’

At the end of this book there are a couple of lengthy appendices, one on Marx’s method and another on his theory of reification. It is encouraging to see a work of this quality being produced in Japan, and congratulations are due to Ryuji Sasaki and his translator, WSPUS member Michael Schauerte.
Lew Higgins

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