The Robbery of Nature

–Capitalism and the Metabolic Rift

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

he chapter on “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Capital closes with this statement: “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil…. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” “Robbing the worker” referred to the theory of exploitation, which entailed the expropriation of the worker’s surplus labour by the capitalist. But what did Marx mean by “robbing the soil”? Hererobbery was connected to his theory of the Guano extraction in Peru — Photo by: Tomás Munitametabolic rift arising from the expropriation of the earth. As he stated earlier in the same paragraph, “capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.”

The same basic logic was present in the other famous passage on the metabolic rift, at the end of the chapter on “The Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent” in the third volume of Capital. There Marx referred to “the squandering of the vitality of the soil” by large-scale capitalist enterprise, generating “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

In both instances, Marx’s notion of the robbery of the soil is intrinsically connected to the rift in the metabolism between human beings and the earth. To get at the complexities of his metabolic rift theory, it is therefore useful to look separately at the issues of the robbery and the rift, seeing these as separate moments in a single development. This is best done by examining how Marx’s ecological critique in this area emerged in relation to the prior critique of industrial agriculture provided by the celebrated German chemist Justus von Liebig. Of particular importance in this context is Liebig’s notion of the “robbery system” (Raubsystem) or “robbery economy” (Raubwirthschaft), which he associated with British high farming.

For Marx, as for Liebig, this robbery was not of course confined simply to external nature, since humans as corporeal beings were themselves part of nature. The expropriation of nature in capitalist society thus had its counterpart, in Marx’s analysis, in the expropriation of human bodily existence. The robbery and the rift in nature’s metabolism was also a robbery and a rift in the human metabolism. This was visible in the many forms of bonded labour, in the conditions of social reproduction in the patriarchal household, and in the destructive physical impacts and the loss of the vital powers of individual human beings.


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