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Value, Rationality and the Environment

Val ue, Rationality and the
Andrew Collier

Today most people on the Left are aware that ecological
damage, and the threat of ecological disaster, are among the
foremost contradictions of capitalism, second only to the
impoverishment of the Third World. In addition to ecology
in the strict sense, the damage done to the material environment of our everyday lives proceeds, subjecting us, I
believe, to an all but irresistible debasement of our personal,
aesthetic and political attitudes (of which more below). For
myself, I have been made acutely aware of this damage
since moving to Southampton: the claustrophobia (for a
non-motorist) of a city cut off on its landward side by a
motorway; the new urban motorway, cutting a swathe
through Swaythling and decapitating St Denys; I the destruction of any unity in the City Centre by hard-to-cross
roads, car parks, and self-enclosed shopping malls; the
University’s plan to destroy the local haunts of wildlife at
Lord’s Wood by siting a second campus there; and the local
press regularly bringing news of fresh instances of planning
blunders, planning oversights, and ‘constructive co-operation between public authorities and private enterprise’.

It is commonly thought that there are few resources in
the classics of what I still insist on calling ‘scientific
socialism’, for explaining and remedying these harms.

Some socialists, like many non-socialist Greens, have
adopted instead a hostility to science, to reason, and to the
dominion of humankind over nature. In this paper, I want to
suggest that one of Marx’ s central distinctions – between
use-value and exchange-value – can provide the basis of the
theory we need. However, I do not limit myself to the use of
these terms in Marxist political economy. To the production
of use-value and of exchange-value, there correspond two
kinds of practical rationality, which have their effects in
morality, aesthetics, politics and science, as well as economics.

The production of use-value and of
Marx’s Capital opens with a distinction between use-value
and exchange-value. Every commodity is a use-value, i.e. ‘a
thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of
whatever kind’ (p. 125). Use-values are ‘the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be’ (ibid.). But

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

not every use-value is a commodity, since not all have

This is the case whenever its utility to man is not
mediated through labour. Air, virgin soil, natural
meadows, unplanted forests, etc. fall into this category. A thing can be useful, and a product of human
labour, without being a commodity. He who satisfies
his own need with the product of his own labour
admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities
(p. 131).

Marx notes that
In English writers of the seventeenth century we still
often find the word ‘worth’ used for use-value and
‘value’ for exchange-value. This is accordance with the spirit of a language that likes to use a
Teutonic word for the actual thing, and a Romance
word for its reflection (p. 126n).

I am tempted to adopt this terminology, but resist on the
grounds that one can talk about concrete objects as ‘usevalues’, but hardly as ‘worths’. And Marx himself uses
‘use-values’ to refer to the things themselves, rather than the
values they possess by virtue of their relations. They are
use-values by virtue of their objective properties, though
the discovery of these properties is ‘the work of history’ (p.

Use-value, Marx tells us, is the qualitative aspect of
value. This does not of course mean that use-values cannot
be counted or measured. But no quantity of one use-value
can be equated with a quantity of another. The question
‘how many bottles of beer are worth the same as one Bible?’

is senseless in use-value terms: the uses are different, hence
their worth incommensurable. Yet in the market they will be
exchangeable in a definite ratio, mediated by money. In this
connection, Marx quotes Aristotle more than once: to the
effect that different goods are naturally incommensurable,
and made artificially commensurable by money (Capital, p.

151; Ethics, pp. 120-21); that ‘twofold is the use of every
object. … The one is peculiar to the object as such, the other
is not, as a sandal which may be worn and is also exchangeable’ (quoted Capital p. 179n); and he refers to the two


distinct arts generated, for Aristotle, by this use-value/
exchange-value distinction: economics, the art of procuring
use-values for the household or the state; and chrematistics,
the art of money-making (Capital, pp. 253-54 ).It would be
in the interests of accuracy if the economics departments in
most universities were re-styled ‘Departments of
Chrematistics’ .

On one matter, however, Marx criticises Aristotle: for
Aristotle, the commensurability necessary for exchange is
made possible simply by the artificial device, money. For
Marx, this is only surface appearance. At bottom, exchange-value expresses ‘value’ , the quantity oflabour-time
embodied in the product. There are contexts in which I
would want to defend Marx’ s theory of value but, for the
purposes of this paper, I don’t need to. Just as Marx often
gives examples in which a price expressed in money stands
in for labour-based value in the point the example illustrates, so we can bracket off the price/value distinction for
the present purpose, and hence avoid having to take sides in
the controversies between neo-Marxist and paleo-Marxist

Granted this, I may describe my project as distinguishing the type of rationality inherent in economics from that
inherent in chrematistics, and in each case generalising the
type beyond this particular use; and suggesting that it is the
chrematistic type of rationality which is the principal enemy
of the environment. But of course the two types of rationality do not hang in a historical vacuum. In both pre-capitalist
and socialist societies as defined by Marx, the motive of
production is the procurement of use-values. In capitalism
it is the augmentation of capital, which for each individual
capital means maximising monetary returns and minimising monetary costs. There are two aspects to Marx’s case
against capitalism: that it is exploitative, and that it is
irrational in terms of use-value rationality. The environmental destructiveness of modern capitalism is an instance
of this irrationality in use-value terms – an irrationality
inherent in what is usually called ‘economic rationality’

(i.e. chrematistic rationality).

Chrematistic rationality
In the passage on chrematistics, Aristotle mentions that,
while use-value production has a limit (enough bread to
feed the city is enough bread to feed the city), ‘riches, such
as chrematistics strives for, are unlimited’ (Politics, quoted
Capital, p. 253n).1t is surely no accident that the conception
of happiness upheld by Aristotle is a conception of something which has certain attainable (with good fortune)
necessary conditions, which conjointly are sufficient conditions – and if happy, what else can we need? By contrast, an
influential group of moral theories indigenous to capitalist
societies regards human desires as infinite. A finite being
with infinite desires looks like an evolutionary mistake.

Why is such a conception so widespread?

The structure of the reasoning is the same in (for exampie) utilitarian ethics and in chrematistics. Its features are
(1) mathematical calculability, which in both cases requires


qualitatively different goods to be translated into commensurable quantities; in order to achieve this, (2) a value
external to the object valued is postulated; a value which is
of the same kind in the case of all valued objects, and which
confers their value on them. In the case of chrematistics,
money; in the case of utilitarianism, pleasure-and-theavoidance-of-pain (the hyphens are necessary, otherwise it
becomes obvious that two qualitatively different values are
already involved). This externality, by at once atomising
and homogenising all goods, both licenses quantifiability
and abolishes limits. It also imposes a sort of tunnel vision
on the practitioners of this kind of practical reasoning. This
is obvious in the case of chrematistic. Only those effects of
the production process which are saleable are the product;
only what costs or brings in money goes into the calculation.

Hence environmental effects, among other things, are invisible.

What of utilitarianism? Let us first consider its symbiosis with chrematistic in modern times. Jevons’ The Theory
of Political Economy makes use of utilitarianism in a way
which looks like collapsing the two into a single system,
while making ultimately untenable distinctions between the
two. He includes pleasure and pain among the fundamental
concepts of his science, and appeals to the authority of
Bentham for treating a ‘moral science’ (i.e. a social science)
mathematically. Yet in one way he is on firmer ground than
Bentham – or would be if he recognised the limits circumscribing his own discipline. For he recognises that pleasure
and pain cannot in themselves be measured; but ‘their
effects’ can – i.e. quantitative transactions in a money
economy. And indeed these can be measured: But Jevons
shows no inkling of the values lost to view by this approach
– and not because of any pretence to value-neutrality.

Jevonian chrematistics is both frankly prescriptive and
pretty close to claiming a priori necessity:

Although … the beneficent results of Free Trade are
great and unquestionable, they could hardly be proved
to exist a posteriori; they are to be believed because
deductive reasoning from premises of almost certain
truth leads us confidently to expect such results, and
there is nothing in experience which in the least
conflicts with our expectations (p. 88).

One and a half million Irish people’s lives sacrificed on the
altar of Free Trade through the export of grain during the
potato famine might have been thought a posteriori evidence enough against it, but a dogma claiming to be ‘almost
as self-evident as are the elements of Euclid’ (p. 90) can
hardly lay itself open to such refutation.

Jevons feels the need to point out the relation of economics to ethics (pp. 91-93), and adopts the following position:

he accepts the modification of utilitarian ethics in terms of
‘higher’ pleasures which ought to take precedence over
lower ones, and in its name rejects Paley’s dictum ‘pleasures differ in nothing but in continuance and intensity’ (p.

92). How then can his purely quantitative discipline operate
with pleasure and pain, rather than simply with money
values? His answer is:

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

It is the lowest rank of feelings which we here treat.

The calculus of utility aims at supplying the ordinary
wants of man at the least cost of labour. Each labourer, in the absence of other motives, is supposed
to devote his energy to the accumulation of wealth. A
higher calculus of moral right and wrong would
indeed be needed to show how he may best employ
that wealth for the good of others as well as himself

Now if pleasures and pains are measured by their effects on
the market, and higher pleasures actually do override lower
ones in some cases, then the economist cannot abstract from
them in this way. What the passage quoted suggests is that
Jevons believes that ‘higher’ considerations may come into
play in deciding what to do with one’s money once acquired,
while economic (i.e. chrematistic) rationality reigns untroubled by such considerations in the matter of acquiring
the money. But in truth, by the time economic process is
over and the moral one begins, the damage has been done.

For the manner in which certain values are prevented from
having economic effects is not that intimated in the last
quote. It is rather that all effects of the production process
that are extrinsic to the goal of augmenting capital are
systematically excluded from consideration, however intensely pleasurable or painful they may be. Almost by
definition, environmental values fall into this class.

In fact Jevons quickly forgets the limit he has placed on
economics, and reverts to treating it as equivalent to the
utilitarian moral calculus. Thus on p. 101: ‘Pleasure and
pain are undoubtedly the ultimate objects of the calculus of
ec~nomics’; ‘By a commodity we shall understand any
object, substance, action or service, which can afford pleasure or ward off pain’ such as birdsong, prayer, or scratching
an itchy spot, no doubt – but when have these had measurable economic effects?

So far I have been looking at equivocations about the
scope of economics: in one breath it claims the whole of
practical reason for its kingdom, in the next it exiles higher
values to the kingdom of ethics, which it has just annexed.

The next question is whether utilitarian ethics, despite its
structural identity to this kind of economic reasoning, can
restore the exiled values, and so offset the tunnel vision of
production for exchange. I take it that the attempt to do so
is precisely what is called ‘cost benefit analysis’.

As an undergraduate, I attended a lecture on cost benefit
analysis by a professor of economics. When costing an
urban motorway, he told us, purely economic calculation
would ignore the deaths it would cause. Cost benefit analysis rectifies this. But to do so it must solve the difficult
problem of pricing the heads of the victims. The first
suggestion is to measure the pain of death by its hypothetical economic effect: we ask how much money the victims
would have given for the privilege of staying alive. Since
the answer would be all they’ve got, millionaires and
paupers figure quite differently in such calculations, and the
siting of the end of urban motorways downtown is strongly
indicated. An alternative would be to ask about the value to

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

the economy as a whole of the deceased, calculating this as:

how much more would this person have contributed to the
economy than taken out of it, had they lived an average lifespan? This, we were told, had the consequence that the
average woman over 25 had a price on her head – her death
would count as a benefit, not a cost. These proposals were
presented, of course, with some irony. But the implication
was: nevertheless, if we are not satisfied with the monetary
goals of pure economics, we must travel this road. Lives
must be priced. And the truth is that there is no way of doing
so that is not either offensive or arbitrary.

Of course, a decision must be taken one way or the other
in such cases. And it is always possible to dress up one’s
decision as an assigning of numerical values. To say ‘the
value of lives is one thousand pounds each’ is simply to say
‘we won’t let road accidents put us off unless the purely
economic considerations are fairly evenly balanced’; to
value them at ten million each is to say ‘stuff your motorway’. Just as, if after a night’s revelling a fellow reveller
greets you with ‘where on a scale of one to ten is your
headache this morning?’, and you answer ‘eight’, you are
not reporting a reading taken from an inner algometer, just
saying, ‘lousy, though I’ve had worse’.

This is all leading to the point that, while utilitarian
ethics may pick up some values that chrematistics ignores,
it is still afflicted with tunnel vision. It picks up some nonmoney values, but only insofar as they can be forced into the
same straitjacket as money values: mathematical calculability and the externality of value to object. This disqualifies
utilitarianism from giving an adequate account of environmental ethics, since:

(1) Where some value is in its inherent nature not amenable
to mathematical calculations, the attempt to mathematise
it will almost always devalue it relative to those values
that can be quantified by some agreed procedure.

(2) By treating values as external to the objects valued, the
manner in which environmental goods are valued is
falsified and trivialised. Let us take the example of
Southampton University’s plans for a second campus
in Lord’s Wood. The case against is best expressed as:

Southampton is a better place to live with one Univer-


sity campus and one large wooded area inhabited by
badgers, deer etc., than it would be with two campuses
and no such area. 3 That, I think, would gain fairly wide
assent. But once the economic advantages of university
expansion are pitted against the pleasure of walkers, the
balance will look different. This is partly because
professional calculators will always wave their hands at
the vagueness of the latter; partly because, when the
value of Lord’s Wood is reduced to experiences in the
heads of walkers, it is trivialised. When people enjoy
Lord’s Wood they are not enjoying experiences in their
heads, they are enjoying Lord’s Wood.

Aristotle’s point about limited and unlimited aims is also
apposite here. Universities and woodlands are both usevalues, but universities are also economic agencies, and as
such may have unlimited ambitions. Woodlands close to a
city inevitably fall under the covetous eyes of powerful
economic agencies, and have little power of resistance.

Chrematistic rationality has powerful agents as its bearers
– use-value rationality not so. Those powerful agents may
acquire indefinitely large returns for their use of these
woodlands; but a walk in the woods is just a walk in the
woods. Bad rationality drives out good.

So far I have been considering chrematistic rationality as
(a) a feature of the economic structure of capitalism – the
necessary form of rationality for agents within that structure; (b) the reflection of this in economic theory, which
identifies chrematistic rationality with practical rationality
as such; (c) the generalisation of this view in utilitarian
ethics. Two other features of chrematistic rationality are
relevant to environmental ethics.

In the first place, it is embodied in the material environment which capitalism has built for us, and so comes to
structure our lives willy nilly. It becomes the ‘objective
spirit’ of our age, and so to a degree constrains our moral as


well as our economic practices. Our urban habitat is moulded
by an obsession with economical use of time and space to
produce an end product: a convenient interior to an individual housing unit. The end-benefit is isolated from its
environment and history: to enjoy it, one has to forget its
context in time and space. Behind double-locked doors,
there is peace, clean electricity and high speed gas; venture
outside and a judge just might regard you as an accomplice
of your attacker. Thus modern housing areas invert the
metaphor of the whited sepulchre; inside, clean and neat and
perhaps even comfortable; outside – ugliness, dirt, decay.

Bourgeois housing developments express the same ethos in
their privileged way: the ugly convenience of a house built
round its garage, and the false rurality of developments that
make the real countryside recede further and further. Transport policy expresses and enforces the same values. The
self-fulfilling assumption is that travel is necessarily unpleasant, a mere interval, to be kept as short as possible,
between being behind one set of locked doors and another.4
The public sphere is drained of value; it becomes the sphere
of unpleasant means to ends outside itself, just like wagelabour. Its violence is then re-enacted for pleasure, with the
obsessi veness of a recurring nightmare, in the safety of the
private sphere. (Almost any other historical society, I think,
would have been shocked speechless by the proportion of
their time that the average modem spends watching images
of slaughter, or reading accounts of slaughter, for pleasure.)
Finally, there is the effect of chrematistic rationality on
science. Its homology with certain theories in the natural
sciences has often been noted, but this does not impress me.

The natural sciences are too well tested to be impugned by
such considerations, and their results are morally and politically neutral. At most it may be that areas of reality which
do not have the form of quantifiability and externality of
relations have been under-theorised. But the way in which
the sciences are applied is a different matter. That they are
often applied in environmentally reckless ways is well
known. I am among those who hold this to be the fault, not
of science, but of its commercial or military use. But one
feature of that use is interesting also from the point of view
of the philosophy of science. The results of sciences are
taken up and used in an abstract state. Instead of the
sequence ‘abstract science -t concrete science (i.e. scientific knowledge applied to a concrete reality) -t practically
applied science’, we get the abridged sequence ‘abstract
science -t practically applied science’ . Thus the knowledge
that, say, irradiation inhibits certain processes of decay in
organic matter gets lifted straight out of midstream science
and applied commercially in food storage, in disregard to
the way this mechanism interacts with others in the process
of providing food for people. This is so taken for granted
that it is not noticed what is happening: the product of
science is being put to use before science has finished its
work on it. Since this unfinished product has a market value,
its inherently unfinished state is missed. Before a product of
science can be a (positive) use-value, on the other hand, it
must be the concrete knowledge of some concrete usevalue. 5
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

Use-value rationality
The inadequacies of chrematistic rationality will already
have suggested by contrast the nature of use-value rationality. Different use-values must be recognised as qualitatively different and hence not interchangeable in any fixed
proportion. Calculation disappears from moral reasoning,
and is put in its place – unable to deliver a final decision in economic reasoning. There is no way to measure the harm
of deceiving someone against the harm of hurting them
(when these are alternatives), the good of forgiving wrongs
against the good of punishing them, the preservation of
cultural values against the equalisation of wealth, the need
of a city for water against the need of a village not to be
evacuated to make way for a reservoir. We can and must
make these choices, of course, and the act of doing so may
be thought to assign an ordinal number to alternatives, but
not a cardinal number.

In evaluating a plan for a motorway, one would take into
account not only costs saved, but lives lost, and such
imponderables as the feeling of being boxed in by motorways surrounding one’s town. The uselessness of cost
benefit analysis for such a decision has recently been
acknowledged with the invention of ‘comprehensive weighing’. Now the sort of reasoning involved in use-value
production could be called comprehensive weighing. However, what has in fact appropriated that title looks to me
more like cost benefit analysis with a few unassimilated
qualitative blobs in it. It is still conceived as something one
could be trained in, rather as cost benefit analysts are
trained. But that sort of training is just what makes people
bad at qualitative decision making. Inevitably, they will
look on the qualitative blobs as intractable problems, obstacles to a ‘rational’ solution. If they start taking the blobs
seriously, all the quantitative work done on the rest of the
values is wasted.

Secondly, while things may be desired as a means to
realising their exchange-value, the use-value of anything is
(in one sense) a real quality of it, intrinsic to it. But of course
only those properties make something a use-value which
make it useful to people. An onion is a use-value because it
can be eaten, a landscape because it can be seen. One can
sum up these two aspects of use-values by saying that they
are inherent in our world. Not in us, as are the utilitarian
values of pleasure and pain. We enjoy a meal, not a series
of sensations in our taste buds; we love beauty, not the eye
of the beholder; we relieve suffering, not the pity of the
reliever; we seek knowledge, not the having of that knowledge by any individual. Or at least, the state of mind that
values itself rather than its object, though it may occur, is
rare and derivative, not to say corrupt and self-defeating.

And goods or harms may occur without any consciousness
of them; a person is harmed if they are deceived, even ifno
further harm ensues, and they never become aware of the

Use-values are inherent in our world. By saying this I
bracket off – though I do not necessarily deny – possible
goods that are independent of the existence of people. It is
we who value use-values, but that does not mean that we
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

value them for some end external to them. Just as an
individual’s desires may not be self-referential (e.g. one
may desire certain things to occur after one’s death), so we
may value things which will produce no further benefit to
any human, other than that the valued things exist. Consider
here the question of our treatment of animals. Kant thought
we should not be cruel to animals because such cruelty
corrupts its agents. But if cruelty corrupts, that can only be
because it is taking pleasure in something evil. And that is
evil, not because it corrupts us, which would be circular, but
because it hurts the animal. Conversely the only good
desired in an act of kindness to an animal may be the
animal’s wellbeing.

These examples of use-value rationality have so far been
mainly ‘moral’ rather than ‘economic’, even though usevalue rationality, like chrematistic rationality, gets its name
from its economic infrastructure. But the division between
the moral and the economic, whose blurring I criticised in
the chrematistic case, really is a fuzzy and relative one in the
case of use-value rationality, because of its deliverance
from tunnel vision. To this I now turn.

In reasoning about which use-values to produce, it is not
only saleable effects of the production-process that meet
the eye. Indeed the distinction between the product of a
labour-process and its side-effects drops out as soon as we
consider that process in use-value terms. To evaluate a
labour-process for its productivity of use-value is to evaluate it in all its concreteness and for all its effects. Effects of
the process on the worker and the environment, effects of
the goods turned out on the well-being and life-style of the
community, and so on. The cost of every car produced
includes its contribution to the boredom of the machinists,
the slicing up of the countryside, the garagisation of cities,
the pollution of the air, the likelihood of squirrels getting run
over and cyclists getting broken arms, and so on.

Economic choice is no longer between commodities, but
between worlds. No kind of mathematical calculation can
be of any assistance here. We have to ask: given the material
resources that are to hand, what sort of world can we make
that will be found good by the people of this civilisation?6
What does the good life for us require by way of houses,
streets, parks, shops, workplaces, urban space, rural landscapes, public buildings, ways of getting from one place to
another, food, drink, household utensils, clothes, rivers,
seas, air, plants, animals, sounds, smells?

I deliberately include in this list some things which

might now be thought of as objects of consumption, some
not. This kind of question cannot be asked so long as we
think of our relation to the product as consumption. We
consume, literally, food and drink. Metaphorically, we may
be said to consume fuel, paper, etc. We do not consume
transport, health care, education, forests, music, the spirit of
place. Our relation to each of these things is quite different.

If we want to sum them up, and arrive at a generalised notion
of ourselves that may take the place in a socialist economy
that ‘the consumer’ does under capitalism, the concept
would have to be something like ‘dweller in the world as
transformed by our work’ .

Or course, as in any kind of practical reasoning, various
values, positive and negative, are brought to mind and a
decision made with regard to them. But instead of assigning
them arbitrary numerical values and doing sums, possible
combinations of the values are considered as complex
modifications of the world. Each value contributes to the
whole, not as an addition to or subtraction from a sum, but
as a qualitatively distinct aspect of a concrete whole. The
decision before us is then which of these possible wholes to
bring about.

Of course much (though not all) work will still be
~ndertaken to meet needs for consumable material objects.

These will be one set of values, to be reckoned alongside the
cost in terms of concrete work required (and not abstract
labour, see Capital, p. 131 ff.), the resources thereby depleted, and any environmental effects. Certain kinds of
environmental effect will enter the reasoning in a fairly
obvious way; I mean the big environmental issues on which
the future of our planet depends. But many subtler environmental issues are brought into play by the notion that we are
choosing not which commodities to produce, but what
world. We have to start asking ourselves questions like:

does walking along that road, or travelling in that bus, make
us feel peaceful or anxious and aggressive; how would the
situation of our town be changed by the building (or
demolition) of a box of motorways round it; what relations
of houses to streets make for good neighbourliness; what
sounds do we want to hear during our everyday activitiesand many more, even subtler questions. This is not as easy
as doing sums, and we shall inevitably fall far short of
success in it. But having seen the successes of modern
capitalism in these matters, who’s worried about the failure?

Finally, the question how science is to be applied in
accordance with use-value rationality. Abstraction is necessary in science if testing, measurement, and exactness are to
be possible; but the aim of science is not to explain what
goes on in the laboratory, where these abstractions are
realised. It is to explain what goes on in the concrete
conjunctures of the world, and ‘the concrete is concrete
because it is the union of many determinations’ (Marx). To
this end, the various abstract strands have to be plaited
together again – not indeed in one vast system of nature, 7 but
in many little systems. To apply science at all, it must be
applied in open systems, and this means systems in which
many processes, known through many sciences, work to8

gether. To apply science with adequate knowledge ofthat to
which it is applied, one must apply concrete conjunctural
science, the union of many abstractions. In demanding fullcircle science, not the wresting of abstract midstream results, use-value rationality may well take up some romantic
or holistic themes, without becoming anti-science or in any
way interfering with the sciences’ freedom of inquiry. It
simpl y requires science to finish its job, just as we would not
let a builder leave slates loose and live wires exposed, or a
chef serve us half-cooked chicken. The proposal is moderate enough in conception, but revolutionary in application,
given the present organisation and use of the sciences. It
means that new knowledge of the laws of nature will not by
itself give rise to new technologies. All -round knowledge
of a concrete domain of nature is first required. Of course,
our knowledge will always be finite, so damaging applications will always be possible; but many would be avoided.


Virtually any socialist argument will be countered by
reference to the recent history of the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe. On the issue in hand, I think some preā€¢

emph ve response IS needed. For use-value production means
planned production as opposed to the market, and those
economies that were planned have now opted for the

First let me say that, while I rejoice in the achievement
of democratic liberties by those countries, I see nothing to
rejoice about in their new economic order or situation. But
I grant that the failures of their economies under planing
were real enough too. Here I am going to stick my neck out
and say that the chief failing was the opposite of what it is
often said to be. It was not their failure to catch up with the
west. Given where they started from, their record in this
respect, until the 1980s, was much better than it could have
been under other economic systems. But partly because
they were so geared to this aim, and partly because of the
.over-centralisation which was itself largely a consequence
of this aim, their record in human terms was not so good, and
in ecological terms was disastrous.

In explaining this bad record, the foremost cause was
that they were (and are) nation-states. As such they compete
on the world market as producers and also compete militaril y
as powers. This subjects them to the same compulsion to
accumulate that capitalist firms experience. If we want a
scientific term for these economies, variously called ‘existing socialism’, ‘state socialism’ and ‘state capitalism’, it
would be national socialism, had not that phrase already
been taken by an altogether more sinister movement.

In relation to global ecological problems – acid rain,
deforestation, greenhouse effect, etc. – such competing
agencies, be they corporations or states, will always be
more or less subject to tunnel vision. Only for global
agencies does this supreme use-value without exchangevalue – the habitability of the planet Earth – come into view
as an over-riding concern. At the same time, centralised
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

planning in nation-states is too remote from the ‘knowledge
by acquaintance’ of local problems by local communities,
to be sensitive to the use-values at stake in such planning.

Nation-states, east or west, are in some ways too large, in
some ways too small, to plan use-value production effectively. Having made this two-edged criticism, I am perhaps
obliged to make specific suggestions, even at the risk of
appearing utopian (a fault which I regard as very grave – but
here my sketch is only meant to indicate the general direction of desirable change).

Most positive planning needs to be done by small,
democratic command economies (which does not preclude
market relations at the corner shop and jobbing builder
level). How small? Well, a city can hardly be divided into
several separate economies, and some cities comprise some
millions of people. But ideally, a state of one million people
is too large. On the other hand some planning needs to be
legislated and policed on a worldwide scale, including
much negative planning (e.g. prohibiting atmospheric pollution or the destruction of rain forests), and inter-state trade
and investment needs to be controlled in the interests of
global equalisation and the prevention of market-compelled productivity-drives. For in use-value terms the drive
for unlimited growth would appear not as a sign of a healthy
economy, but as a cancer on the body politic.

fully formed from the mind of a calculator – expressing an
unhistorical conception of humankind as a mass of worldless
individuals. Trotsky assures us that ‘Most likely, thickets and
forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man
commands them to remain’ (p. 252). But if people were infected
by this titanic vision, we can be sure that they would have no time
for merely ‘natural’ tigers, and would prefer to decorate the
world with geometric shapes, ‘compass in hand’. I would hope
that this rootless notion of originality, being no more than an
aesthetic effect of chrematistic rationality, would disappear
from a use-value-rational world, to be replaced by a preference
for the almost imperceptible transformation of deeply assimilated traditions. If so, the danger inherent in ‘holistic’ planning
would be avoided. It would be holistic not in the sense that totally
new wholes would be planned, but that it would be contrived that
the integration of the newly produced elements into the preexisting whole should form a preferable whole.


Among the Greeks – just because they were not yet advanced
enough to dissect, analyse nature – nature is still viewed as a
whole, in general. The universal connection of natural phenomena is not proved in regard to particulars; to the Greeks it is the
result of direct contemplation. Herein lies the inadequacy of
Greek philosophy, an account of which it had to yield later to
other modes of outlook on the world. But herein also lies its
superiority over all its subsequent metaphysical opponents (Dialectics of Nature, pp. 45-46).

Engels is fully aware of the practical necessity of such scientific
attention to the interconnectedness of natural laws in concrete


Districts of Southampton on the west bank of the River Itchen.


The concept of use-value is almost exactly equivalent to that of
the ready-to-hand (zuhanden) in Heidegger’s Being and Time.


For simplicity of example, I am leaving out other aspects of this
real issue. It is my opinion that taking them all into account
would on balance strengthen the case against a second campus
on Lord’s Wood. (Since writing this particular plan has been


On this attitude to space, let me quote C. S. Lewis, writing on the
advantages of growing up in a no-car family:

The truest and most horrible claim for modern transport is that
it ‘annihilates space’. It does. It annihilates one of the most
glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which
lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a
hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and
adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course
if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another
matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little
enough space there (Surprised by Joy, p. 127).


The special role of general practitioners in medicine also illustrates the need for concreteness in applied science.


These questions need the qualifications ‘for the people of this
civilisation’, ‘for us’ and so on, so as to avoid turning into
utopian questions about the best society absolutely. The somewhat holistic way of asking questions, which use-value rationality cannot shirt, puts it at risk of a kind of utopianism,
exemplified frighteningly by Trotsky’s remarks on future environmental planning:

The imperceptible, ant-like piling up of quarters and streets,
brick by brick, from generation to generation, will give way to
titanic constructions of city-villages, with map and compass in
hand (Literature and Revolution, p. 249).

This loathsome vision (and I speak as an admirer of Trot sky on
many matters) exemplifies the metaphysical attitude behind
utopianism: the desire for an environment which, instead of
incarnating our regional histories, in each case unique, springs

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

Cf. Engels’ remarks in the Old Preface toAnti-Diihring about the
dialectical nature of Greek thought, the necessity for science to
pass through an undialectical phase in modern times, and the
consequent need for dialectic to restore its concreteness.

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of
our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature
takes its revenge on us …. The people who, in Mesopotamia,
Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destr9yed the forests to
obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along
with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture
they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those
countries …. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no
means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people,
like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh,
blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that
all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the
advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws
and apply them correctly (op. cit., p. 180).


Though it is my opinion that recent events in Eastern Europe,
while they have altered the polemical situation, do not in
themselves require us to make any revisions in socialist thinking. The events there in Stalin’s time did necessitate rethinking;
but to suddenly embark on such rethinking now smacks of timeserving. To give a historical analogy: it is as if someone became
disillusioned with the ideals of 1789, not because of the Jacobin
terror or the corruption of the Directoire or the aggressions of the
Empire, but because Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.

Of course, other developments may require socialists to rethink,
and some do – notably ecological ones.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

Engels, F. Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1934.

Jevons, W. S. The Theory ofPolitical Economy, Penguin, Harrnondsworth,

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy, Fount Paperbacks, 1977.

Marx, K. Capital, Volume I, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976.

Trotsky, L. D. Literature and Revolution, University of Michigan Press,


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