Friday, March 06, 2015

The Irrationalities of Capitalist Agriculture and The Bottom Line

There are many posts on this blog which refer to a variety of the problems of farmers and farming around the world as a direct result of capitalist logic, however the one reproduced below by Fred Magdoff encapsulates the wide spectrum of separate parts and in putting them together he demonstrates clearly how and why this situation cannot and will not be fixed within the capitalist system.

From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits. For example, because most people lack their own means to produce an income, they must sell their labor power to companies, which in turn must normally pay a high enough wage for the reproduction of workers and their families. However, although requiring people to work in order to live, the economic system does not guarantee a job for everyone who wants and needs to work. Nor do the available jobs necessarily pay sufficient wages for a decent existence (although government regulations may in some cases compel employers to move in this direction). Practices that make eminent sense for the individual capitalist or company, such as paying only the minimum wage necessary in order to obtain sufficient workers with the needed skills, end up being a problem not only for workers, but the capitalist system itself. Low worker income contributes to problems of effective demand.

With regard to the environment there are scores of examples of irrational behavior by capitalist businesses that have the ultimate goal of making profits. Many practices and side effects of the way the system functions degrade the ecosystem and its processes on which we depend and may also directly harm humans. For example, it is not rational to introduce chemicals into the environment, including into products we use daily, that are either toxic or cause illnesses of various types. Yet there are over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States; few of them are tested for their effects on people or other species, and many commonly used ones are suspected to be carcinogens or have other detrimental effects.

For this discussion I would like to focus on a well-known passage from the third volume of Marx’s Capital: “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.” (Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 121 (Chapter 6, section 2).)

read on seamlessly here

Other Systemic Irrationalities of Capitalist Agriculture
The pulls and pushes of the capitalist system, and the way it inherently develops as all sectors strive to maximize profits, produces an agriculture in which: (a) there are hungry people although there is an abundance of food; (b) there is little true cycling of nutrients, increasing the reliance on fertilizers at the same time that excess nutrients accumulate on factory animal farms and in the cities; (c) animals are raised inhumanely; (d) poor rotations are used; (e) farm labor and animal slaughterhouse labor is commonly treated unfairly (and/or cruelly); and (f) pollution with pesticides and fertilizers is widespread, among other problems. All of the common decisions and practices of conventional farmers and others in the agricultural system make eminent sense (that is, they are rational) only from the very narrow perspective of trying to make profits within a capitalist system.
As Marx explained, “the dependence of the cultivation of particular agricultural products upon the fluctuations of market-prices, and the continual changes in this cultivation with these price fluctuations—the whole spirit of capitalist production, which is directed toward the immediate gain of money—are in contradiction to agriculture, which has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 617 (Chapter 37, “Introduction,” footnote 27).)

We must conclude that the way the capitalist agricultural system functions in the real world is environmentally and socially irrational.
But what exactly would a rational agriculture be like? I propose this definition:
 A rational agriculture would be carried out by individual farmers or farmer associations (cooperatives) and have as its purpose to supply the entire population with a sufficient quantity, quality, and variety of food while managing farms and fields in ways that are humane to animals and work in harmony with the ecosystem.
There would be no exploitation of labor—anyone working on the farm would be like all the others, a farmer. If an individual farmer working alone needed help, then there might be a transition to a multi-person farm. The actual production of food on the land would be accomplished by working with and guiding agricultural ecosystems (instead of dominating them) in order to build the strengths of unmanaged natural systems into the farms and their surroundings.
To develop this type of agriculture will require building it within a new socioeconomic system—based on meeting the needs of the people (which include a healthy and thriving environment) instead of accumulation of profits.

Without wishing to do so these extracts from a lengthier article than usual perhaps do a disservice to the strength of the whole, which can be read here.