Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the Second Contradiction of Capitalism

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as I pondered the insanity of the bourgeoisie once again neglecting its infrastructure, I found myself thinking about James O’Connor’s Second Contradiction of Capitalism theory for the first time in a while. When I first began reading and writing about ecology  back in the early 90s, O’Connor was a major influence on my thinking. Now 82 and in poor health, O’Connor is pretty much retired from writing and editorial work. Joel Kovel has taken over the editor position at “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, (http://www.cnsjournal.org/) the journal that O’Connor launched in 1988.

Here’s O’Connor on the ruling class’s failure to look after its long-term interests:

An ecological Marxist account of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system focuses on the way that the combined power of capitalist production relations and productive forces self-destruct by impairing or destroying rather than reproducing their own conditions (“conditions” defined in terms of both their social and material dimensions). Such an account stresses the process of exploitation of labor and self-expanding capital; state regulation of the provision of production conditions; and social struggles organized around capital’s use and abuse of these conditions. The main question — does capital create its own barriers or limits by destroying its own production conditions? — needs to be asked in terms of specific use values, as well as exchange value. This is so because conditions of production are not produced as commodities, hence problems pertaining to them are “site specific,” including the individual body as a unique “site.” The question — why does capital impair its own conditions? — needs to be asked in terms of the theory of self-expanding capital, its universalizing tendencies which tend to negate principles of site specificity, its lack of ownership of laborpower, external nature, and space, hence (without state or monopolistic capitalist planning) capital’s inability to prevent itself from impairing its own conditions.

From: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/second_contradiction.htm

If this Atlantic Monthly article doesn’t summon up images of the second contradiction, I don’t know what does:

The 2011 Report That Predicted New York’s Subway Flooding Disaster

Last fall, as part of a massive report on climate change in New York, a research team led by Klaus Jacob of Columbia University drafted a case study that estimated the effects of a 100-year storm on the city’s transportation infrastructure. Considering MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota’s comments today that Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the subway was “worse than the worst case scenario,” it seems pretty safe to put Sandy in the 100-year category. In that case, assuming the rest of the report holds true, the subway system could be looking at a recovery time of several weeks, with residual effects lasting for months and years.

The researchers modeled a potential 100-year storm that consisted of either a category 1 or 2 hurricane hitting nearby, or a severe nor’easter that coincided with high tide. (As we know now, Sandy was a hybrid of all three events.) The models predicted complete flooding of several tunnels after such an event, including all the tunnels in the East River:

Based on their models, Jacob and colleagues wrote that a 100-year storm could leave roughly 1 billion gallons of water to be pumped from the city’s network of subway tunnels. (To give you an idea of scale, that’s equal to the average daily consumption of drinking water in the city.) If all 14 tunnels flooded, it would take about five days to pump each one clear, according to the report. However that’s the best-case scenario; a week per tunnel is more likely.

Immediate flood-clearing isn’t the only concern. As Ted Mann writes for the Wall Street Journal, salt water is likely to have considerable residual effects on the aging subway system. Jacob and colleagues write that equipment damaged by brackish water will at least require time to clean and could also require time for replacement. In some cases, when the parts are too old and no longer in production, it could require completely new infrastructure:

There probably are not enough personnel trained to rebuild and refurbish equipment simultaneously in multiple subway lines even if the equipment could be procured. There is some existing equipment that, if damaged, cannot be replaced because it is obsolete and is no longer manufactured, nor are there replacement parts for it. Such equipment would have to be redesigned and then installed — a process that can take a long time.

* * * *

The citation from  O’Connor above was from the introduction to the collection of CNS articles titled “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism” that can be read here in its entirety. The book contains articles by Michael Lebowitz, Samir Amin and John Bellamy Foster among others.

(I took the liberty of reformatting O’Connor’s article since it was not that eyeball-friendly in the original.)

It has been quite a number of years since I had anything to say about O’Connor’s theory but this is from something I wrote about 15 years ago, I guess. It is from an article titled “David Harvey, James O’Connor and Engels’ “Conditions of the Working Class in England” that I wrote long before I began blogging. For that matter, it was probably written before blogs existed.

James O’Connor has developed a theory of the “second contradiction” of capitalism that addresses these sorts of concerns.

In an essay “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible” that appears in a collection “Is Capitalism Sustainable” edited by Martin O’Connor (no relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of capitalism.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls “simple reproduction” and what many greens call “maintenance” is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O’Connor, as capital’s power over labor increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains “when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers.” The unintended result is that the worker’s loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about “globalization”.

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the “conditions of production”. The “conditions of production” require three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the “personal conditions of production”, *environment* which he termed “natural or external conditions of productions” and *urban infrastructure*, the “general, communal conditions of production”.

All three of these “conditions of productions” are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the “conditions of production” were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don’t realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O’Connor calls the “second contradiction”. He says, “Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the ‘productivity’ of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs.”

O’Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the “first contradiction” (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroy the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

What Engels observed in the Great Towns of England was an acute crisis based on the Second Contradiction of capitalism. Places like Manchester were becoming uninhabitable due to the necessity of capital to maximize profits without being ready to make the commitment to defend the conditions of the reproduction of capital itself: clean water, fresh air, public health, education, etc.

England, Germany, the United States and Japan of course made great headway in the twentieth century in resolving these types of contradictions at the expense of the colonized world. While the air and water of Manchester may have became *relatively cleaner*, the air and water of Calcutta worsened as the satanic mills of England migrated overseas.

The big question before working-people today of course is the emergence of the “second contradiction” on a global scale. Now that capitalism has become a genuinely global system, what new areas are capable of being despoiled. Scientists have discovered that vast portions of the central African rain-forest have disappeared, and that the environment has consequently undergone radical transformations. These transformations, according to journalist Laurie Garrett in her “The Coming Plague” are responsible for the outbreak of AIDS, Ebola and similar viruses.

Socialists have to begin thinking much more in global terms to confront these problems. We have to stop behaving as if it were the 1840s. The world is a pretty interconnected place today and it is about time that we related to this rather than schemas from a hundred years ago based on a form of the class-struggle that no longer exists.

I will probably have much more to say about O’Connor’s theory and the Hurricane Sandy catastrophe in a subsequent post.


  1. But isn’t it more sensible to spend a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan than to spend a dime making stuff work better here?

    Comment by Richard Greener — November 1, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  2. It’s hard to understand how an “education crisis” is defined or fits in to this analysis. The alleged problem of the developmentof human capital seems to me to be largely a distraction from the two more fundamental contradictions. Perhaps the education crisis is no longer getting people to work harder in factories on less food, but getting highly educated workers to do technical work for minimum wage.

    Comment by David Green — November 4, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

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