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Guide Encyclopedia of Capitalism, Volumes 1-3

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It first appeared in the English language in the translation of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia in the s. It now appears to be the consensus in natural science that the Anthropocene epoch in geological history commenced in the early s, marked by a Great Acceleration of anthropogenic impacts on the Earth System. The special report of the IPCC released last month emphasizes the shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene as signifying that anthropogenic factors are now the leading sources of change in the Earth System, most notably in the form of climate change.

Economic activity at present, as you note, relies heavily on burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests, and livestock farming, all of which lead to the emission of greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change. The greater the scale of the economy the more it rivals the fundamental biogeochemical cycles of the planet.

All of this is connected to the nature and logic of capitalism, understood as a system directed at the accumulation of capital. Capitalism is a grow-or-die system. If accumulation declines, the result is economic crisis.


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The answer of the system is to boost accumulation. This, however, intensifies global environmental crises as the already visible impact of the economy on the Earth System increases. However, we should be careful not to identify economic growth, as that term is used today, with human advancement as a whole. Economic growth was deified in the s, following the introduction of national income accounting during the Second World War. The system of national or Gross Domestic Product GDP accounting is rooted in capitalist notions of value added, profit and accumulation.

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It accurately reflects the logic of capital accumulation but it is far removed from growth in the wider sense in which people usually think of it. This can be understood by looking at some of the details of GDP measurement. The work of subsistence workers in agriculture or women working in the household is not included in GDP since their production is outside the commodity market. If an oil tanker hits an iceberg causing an oil spill, GDP increases, due to all the cleanup costs, insurance payments, and lawyer fees.

However, there is no deduction in GDP for the effects of the oil spill on the environment. The growth of a forest adds nothing to economic growth. But the cutting down of the same forest viewed as so many millions of board feet of standing timber for sale on the market counts as growth. A war that kills millions drives up economic growth, and leads to faster growth afterwards because of the need to replace capital destroyed. The lives lost in the war, however, count for nothing in economic growth terms.

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The problem here is not GDP accounting itself. Rather this way of measuring growth accurately reflects how the capitalist system works. It conceives progress only in terms of the cash nexus whatever passes through the market , as opposed to what benefits people or the planet. In the advanced capitalist economies by far the greater part of production consists of waste in terms of negative use values, that is, products that are unproductive, superfluous, and destructive, while the most basic human needs are often not met.

All of this means we have to move away from economic growth as it is understood in the current system and toward a society of sustainable human development. Does this mean that capitalism is unavoidably bad for the environment? As far as its inner logic is concerned, the answer is yes. For capitalism, accumulation of capital is everything, the Earth and its inhabitants nothing. If value is created by the exploitation of labor, this nonetheless requires constant expropriation of a natural environment which is considered a free gift to capital.

In its narrow pursuit of profits, the capitalist system points inexorably to creative destruction on a planetary scale. Karl Marx theorized this as the problem of the metabolic rift, in which capitalism robbed the Earth itself as a basis of the accumulation of capital. At the current carbon-emission rate, the world will break the global carbon budget i. Other planetary boundaries are also being crossed: resulting in the sixth extinction, ocean acidification, the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of forests, global freshwater shortages, etc.

These urgent problems have to be addressed in the context of the present reality. This requires creation of a massive, irrepressible, global movement toward socialism that goes against the logic of the system: igniting a long ecological revolution. If the participating individuals exchanged equal values, neither of the individuals would increase capital. The needs being satisfied would be the only gain. The creation of surplus-value then becomes rather peculiar for Marx because commodities, in accordance with socially assigned necessary values, should not create surplus-value if traded fairly.

Marx investigates the matter and concludes that "surplus-value cannot arise from circulation, and therefore that, for it to be formed, something must take place in the background which is not visible in the circulation itself". Through the example of a piece of leather, Marx then describes how humans can increase the value of a commodity through the means of labor.

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Turning the leather into boots increases the value of the leather because now more labor has been applied to the leather. Marx then explains the contradiction of the general formula. Capital cannot be created from circulation because equal exchange of commodities creates no surplus value and unequal exchange of commodities changes the distribution of wealth, but it still does not produce surplus-value.

Capital cannot be created without circulation either because labor creates value within the general formula. Thus, Marx writes that "[i]t must have its origin both in circulation and not in circulation". The profit seemingly originates both inside and outside the general formula. In the last section of part two, Marx investigates labor-power as a commodity. Labor-power existing on the market depends on two fulfillments, namely that the workers must offer it for temporary sale on the market and the workers must not possess the means to their own subsistence.

As long as the labor-power is sold temporarily, then the worker is not considered a slave.

Worker dependence for a means of subsistence ensures a large working force, necessary for the production of capital. The value of labor bought on the market as a commodity represents the definite amount of socially necessary labor objectified in the worker, or according to Marx, "the labor-time necessary for the production [of the worker]" [28] which means the food , education , shelter , health , etc. The capitalists need workers to combine with their means of production to create a sell-able commodity and workers need capitalists to provide a wage that pays for a means of subsistence.

Within the capitalist mode of production , it is custom to pay for labor-power only after it has been exercised over a period of time, fixed by a contract i. In part three, Marx explores the production of absolute surplus value. To understand this, one must first understand the labor process itself. According to Marx, the production of absolute surplus value arises directly out of the labor process. There are two sides to the labor process. On one side, there is the buyer of labor power, or the capitalist. On the other side, there is the worker.

For the capitalist, the worker possesses only one use-value, namely that of labor power. The capitalist buys from the worker his labor power, or his ability to do work. In return, the worker receives a wage, or a means of subsistence. Marx says this of the labor process: "In the labor process, therefore, man's activity, via the instruments of labor, effects an alteration in the object of labor. Labor has become bound up in its object: labor has been objectified, the object has been worked on".

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Under capitalism, it is the capitalist who owns everything in the production process such as the raw materials that the commodity is made of, the means of production and the labor power worker itself. At the end of the labor process, it is the capitalist who owns the product of their labor, not the workers who produced the commodities.

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Since the capitalist owns everything in the production process, he is free to sell it for his own profit. The capitalist wants to produce "[a]n article destined to be sold, a commodity; and secondly he wants to produce a commodity greater in value than the sum of the values of the commodities used to produce it, namely the means of production and the labor-power he purchased with his good money on the open market. His aim is to produce not only a use-value, but a commodity; not only use-value, but value; and not just value, but also surplus value".

The goal of the capitalist is to produce surplus value. However, producing surplus value proves to be difficult. If all goods are purchased at their full price, then profit cannot be made.


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  8. Surplus value cannot arise from buying the inputs of production at a low price and then selling the commodity at a higher price. This is due to the economic law of one price which states "that if trade were free, then identical goods should sell for about the same price throughout the world". Price changes on the open market will force other capitalists to adjust their prices in order to be more competitive, resulting in one price. Thus, where does surplus value originate? Quite simply, the origin of surplus value arises from the worker. To better understand how this happens, consider the following example from Marx's Capital, Volume I.

    A capitalist hires a worker to spin ten pounds of cotton into yarn. Suppose the value of the cotton is one dollar per pound.

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    The entire value of the cotton is 10 dollars. The production process naturally causes wear and tear on the machinery that is used to help produce the yarn. Suppose this wearing down of machinery costs the capitalist two dollars. The value of labor power is three dollars per day. Now also suppose that the working day is six hours. In this example, the production process yields up 15 dollars and also costs the capitalist 15 dollars, therefore there is no profit.

    Now consider the process again, but this time the working day is 12 hours. In this case, there is 20 dollars produced from the 20 pounds of cotton. Wear and tear on machinery now costs the capitalist four dollars.