What Is Value? A Marxist Perspective

Marx’s critique of capitalism, and more specifically his theory of value, is still very relevant today, as I argue in my new book Fetishism and the Theory of Value: Reassessing Marx in the 21st Century.

But his work is often misunderstood, not only by orthodox economists but also by others – such as ‘greens’ – who seek inspiration in his writings. Economists, if they refer to his work at all, have tended to focus on the quantitative labour theory of value, ignoring what Marx called the qualitative theory of value: his critique of the economic categories of ‘bourgeois’ economics which mystify –  and hence also justify – the reality of what is really going on. The concept of fetishism is crucial to this theory, but by economists this has been either ignored or treated as the work of Marx the philosopher or Marx the sociologist. Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism in the very first chapter of Capital Volume I, where he seeks to get to grips with the mysterious phenomenon of exchange value. Rather than simplistically equating value with price – as is the practice of the market system and mainstream economics – he delves deep into the beliefs and practices that constitute and sustain the capitalist system. In other works, he applies the concept of fetishism to capital, money and interest-bearing capital. By reference to what he calls the ‘Trinity Formula’ he shows how, by presenting profit as the return on capital and rent as the return on land, both profit and rent are taken for granted, and go unchallenged. That the surplus value generated in production accrues solely to capital is treated as somehow ‘natural’.

In my book, I show the continuing relevance of Marx’s theory today, especially with regard to finance and the environment. Both the financial crisis of 2008 and the continuing crisis of environmental destruction are related to the way in which the market increasingly extends its grip over our lives: through the financialisation of everyday life, and through the use of market instruments and market principles that shape our relationship with nature.

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Can we electrify our way out of climate change – or do the rich also need to consume less?

As the Artic sea ice rapidly melts and the communities across the world suffer dire consequences, we are experiencing the tragedies from emitting greenhouse gases from human activities into the atmosphere. Climate scientists warn humans are running out of time to bring down CO2 in the atmosphere to stay below even 2 degrees celsius, as the planet’s ecosystems become unstable and the earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable. Arguably, we already have the policies and the technology required to combat climate change. Climate scientists at COP 21 in Paris 2015 laid out roadmaps for how to transition to clean energy in time, and these clean energy roadmaps show how more jobs are created, consumers save money, and together save life on earth as we know it.

Public discussions about how to convince people and governments to stop using fossil fuel energy take two paths. One is to emphasize that people’s lifestyles don’t have to change, as long as they electrify cars and homes–putting their faith in technological progress. The other is to emphasize climate justice and point out that many middle-income and affluent families need to consume less and share their prosperity. Lifestyle changes include living in smaller homes closer to work, flying less, eating mostly plant-based diets, and not buying so much stuff that ends up in the landfill. More broadly, re-envisioning economic growth and creating a circular economy that replaces wasteful private consumption with essential public services can improve the well-being of people today and in the future.

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Green Structural Adjustment in The World Bank’s Resilient Cities


Jakarta, Indonesia

By Patrick Bigger and Sophie Webber

Cities across the world are facing a double-barreled existential problem: how to adapt to climate change and how to pay for it. Over the next thirty years, more than 570 coastal cities are poised to face frequent catastrophic flooding owing to sea level rise and more intense storms, while as many as 3.2 billion urban residents may run out of water by 2050. Other looming crises include soaring urban temperatures, the urgent need to transition away from fossil-fueled energy and transport systems, and plummeting rates of local biodiversity.

Responding to these problems will, international bodies project, require a virtually unprecedented buildout of infrastructure, from hardened municipal water and sewage systems, to urban afforestation, to renewable energy systems. This massive infrastructural program coincides with global economic conditions marked by the lingering ideological stranglehold of austerity, unprecedented levels of capital concentration, and now, myriad uncertainties produced by COVID-19. Cities across the world are facing a double-barreled existential problem: how to adapt to climate change and how to pay for it. Over the next thirty years, more than 570 coastal cities are poised to face frequent catastrophic flooding owing to sea level rise and more intense storms, while as many as 3.2 billion urban residents may run out of water by 2050. Other looming crises include soaring urban temperatures, the urgent need to transition away from fossil-fueled energy and transport systems, and plummeting rates of local biodiversity.

In response to the twin problems of resilient infrastructure needs and public fiscal constraints, the World Bank and an array of partner institutions from the Rockefeller Foundation to USAID have been ramping up programs to facilitate private investment in urban resilience. From a baseline of $10 billion across 77 cities in 2016, the World Bank aims to ‘catalyze’ investment of more than $500 billion into urban resilience projects across 500 cities by 2025. Read More »

The COVID-19 Distraction and Brazil’s Environmental Cliff

Amazon RainforestBrazil faces boiling social unrest. An institutional crisis breeds entropy into an already stressed social system fraught with inequality, increasing poverty and an escalating number of deaths from coronavirus. 

A few days ago, despite another daily mass body count, the country stopped to watch the footage of a 22nd April meeting with President Bolsonaro’s cabinet. The tape release was commanded by a Supreme Court judge in an inquiry into an alleged interference by Bolsonaro in the Brazilian federal policy to protect one of his sons, currently under investigation.

The footage is horrendous to the democratic sensitivities and bitter to any political or civic taste. But I would like to point out one single intervention in the meeting that speaks to the country’s entrapment into its own version of ‘fail-forward’ neoliberalism. It reveals a government fixated in dismantling any piece of State regulation and privatizing any available company owned by the State. 

Philip Mirowski has argued in his 2013 book Never Let a Serious Crisis go to waste that cognitive dissonance boosts neoliberal thought to the point that no countervailing evidence can shake its disciples’ convictions of its ultimate truth. No matter how apocalyptical a crisis may seem, there is always reason to blame government intervention for all evils plaguing the Earth. Read More »

The risk of being misled by climate economy models


This post deconstructs the following statement:

If reducing greenhouse emissions had economic benefits then we would do it anyway without new policy.

The statement above is used by economists to argue against the introduction of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that the costs would outweigh the benefits of reducing climate change. It is part of a wider narrative that regulatory policy can only lead to economic costs. However, the statement is perhaps one of the most perverse conclusions from neoclassical economics. It depends on a raft of assumptions that run contrary to real-world experience. Further, as discussed below, if just one assumption is taken out, the conclusion changes.

Sadly, economists and (in particular) economic modellers, have played a key role in turning this fallacy into accepted reality. They have done this by using simple optimisation-based approaches that make strong assumptions about human behaviour. Often the modellers do not critically question or even fully understand these assumptions. Read More »

Is Degrowth an Alternative to Capitalism?


The newest book by Giorgos Kallis, one of the most prolific degrowth advocates is entitled Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. It is a short and accessible read which contains some important and unconventional arguments. In what follows, I will first briefly summarize the core arguments of the book, which promises to provoke important discussions on the matter of limits and subjects. Then I will reflect on the fuzziness of the primarily cultural conceptualization of capitalism, and argue that neither self-limitation nor degrowth qualifies as a mode of production, such that they could constitute an alternative to capitalism.Read More »

The Green New Deal: Whither Capitalism?


By Güney Işıkara and Ying Chen

The Green New Deal resolution by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey sparked an immense amount of discussion on all layers of political discourse, national and international. The way Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and many others phrase the problem in the broader context of social, economic, and environmental grievances caused by capitalism is crucial for setting the terms of debate and struggle. This opens up space the left can use to address such issues in a systematic way rather than being content with symptomal healing. In fact, countless contributions have already been made on theoretical and tactical grounds. In this piece, we build on those contributions, and unpack the dynamics inherent to the capitalist system that would need to be addressed in the ongoing discussions. We also shed light on the limitations of a market-based and growth-centered approach to tackling climate destabilization, while offering other domains of political intervention such as property relations and demarketization of subsistence.Read More »