The Political Economy of the Ecocide Machine


The shortages of the pandemic revealed the physicality of a wide range of commodities. To ignore this physicality is to obfuscate capital's imperialist and ecocidal character.

There is an Important Difference between Economics Textbooks and Toilet Paper

As the covid-19 crisis took hold in March of last year, supermarket shelves across the UK were empty of basic commodities such as pasta and toilet paper, and at the same time Cambridge University Press was making its catalogue of (ordinarily paywalled) electronic textbooks freely available to all for the purposes of remote teaching. A stark difference had seemingly emerged between the kind of commodity which no-one can get during a pandemic, such as pasta and toilet paper, and the kind of commodity which anyone can get (assuming of course that they already benefit from the necessary hardware and infrastructure) such as an electronic textbook.

It took a pandemic to draw attention to it, but the difference between the two kinds of commodity is simple. In one category are those commodities where what is bought and sold is a quantity of physical stuff, and the amount of it available at the point of exchange is a function of the quantity of resources previously allocated to material processes like manufacturing and transportation. If more pasta is needed at the point of exchange (because, for example, people are stockpiling), it is not possible to go back in time and allocate more material resources to manufacturing and transportation. The pasta just physically isn’t there and that is the end of it.

The same constraint does not apply to items in the other category such as electronic textbooks. The quantity of them available at the point of exchange is a consequence of an arbitrary constraint imposed at that point in time which can be lifted on a whim. No time-travel is necessary. The physical laws which govern the behaviour of matter and energy, while of course having a role in the delivery systems for electronic textbooks, do not (as they do in the case of pasta) constrain the quantity of units available for sale. And this difference between compliance with physical laws generally (which everything has to do), and compliance with physical laws as regards quantities, is of great significance.

Among other things, the phenomenon serves to illustrate that within the broader system analysed by today’s marginalist economists as ‘the economy’ – with its credit/fiat money, intangible assets, electronic ledgers, financial instruments held in and by legal entities &c – there continue to exist the circuits of material production and consumption that are the central object of analysis for political economists in the classical tradition. While the processes in that system are mediated by exchange, and so it forms part of ‘the economy’, it is also a physical process where matter is metabolised into physical commodities, a quantity of which cycles back into further such metabolism of matter. This cycling back occurs either because the metabolised matter goes on to be consumed as means of further such material production (tools, machinery, vehicles, transportation infrastructure, raw materials &c) or because it is consumed as wage goods for the workers operating those means of material production. The reason quantities are so important in this context is because what cycles back into production is less than what is produced: spinning out of these circuits, constantly, relentlessly, is a physical surplus.

Within the broader system analysed by today’s marginalist economists as ‘the economy’ there continue to exist circuits of material production and consumption.

Owing to the pivotal position of early nineteenth century economist David Ricardo in the ‘classical’ tradition of economics that concerns itself specifically with this system, one might refer to it as ‘the Ricardian machine’. The Ricardian machine consists of the all of the tools, machines, vehicles, transportation infrastructure and raw materials in use in the sphere of capitalist production of material commodities, plus the labour of the people whose work is to operate those tools, machines, vehicles &c, plus the material commodities those people consume, plus (which is more, hence the aforementioned surplus) the resulting material commodities that are produced. The Ricardian machine physically exists, and however much the amounts of money flowing in other parts of the economy may dazzle and mesmerise, that machine just carries on metabolising matter into (i) further metabolism of matter, and (ii) a surplus. It is self-sustaining, self-reproducing, constantly reinventing and improving its processes, and growing.

The Value of ‘Value’

That classical tradition of political economy in which David Ricardo holds such a pivotal position, insofar as it resembles mainstream economics by virtue of its seeking to model the economy mathematically, is a tradition which seeks to model the behaviour of the Ricardian machine. And the core question that arises in that tradition is this: since the commodities that an individual worker is implicated in producing are not the commodities that they consume, how is it meaningful to compare them quantitatively, so as to say that a surplus is produced? In what sense is a pallet of bricks or a sack of grain quantitatively greater than what went into producing it i.e. raw materials, plus a certain amount of depreciation of tools and machinery, plus a shopping basket of diverse wage goods? How can you count the surplus when you are counting different things? It is that question that classical political economists seek to answer, and a mathematically satisfactory answer was not developed until the work of 20th century ‘neo-Ricardian’ economist Piero Sraffa.

This is not to say that a follower of Sraffa today would necessarily agree that their modelling applies to pasta and toilet paper but not to electronic textbooks, but the fact remains that the quantitative constraints that mean that commodities circulate in the system in finite quantities are imaginary constraints in the case of electronic textbooks on the one hand, and physical processes subject to physical laws in the case of pasta and toilet paper on the other. To illustrate: if one were to imagine an ultra-simplified single-commodity Ricardian machine, it makes perfect sense to seek to model how more pasta might be produced than is eaten by the workers making pasta, thereby giving rise to a surplus (or for that matter, to model how toilet paper workers make more toilet paper than they wipe their own bottoms with), but it makes no sense at all to seek to model how workers might give rise to a surplus of electronic textbooks by uploading more than they download. In this latter case, that crucial property of forming a material circuit where a determinate quantity of output cycles back as an input into further production is wholly absent. It makes no sense to say of the production of electronic textbooks that a greater quantity is produced than is used up – you cannot ‘use up’ something that is infinitely replicable.

Was it the Ricardian machine that Marx analysed in Capital? The answer is both yes and no. The subject matter of his argument is indeed the Ricardian machine. On an interpretative level, subject to some inconclusive and mutually inconsistent asides about where the machine’s precise boundaries lie, there can be no doubt about that. Indeed (and this is something which is not so widely understood as perhaps it should be), in many contexts it is the Ricardian machine that Marx is referring to when he uses the very word “Capital”. But to leave it at that would be to fail to do justice to the scope of Marx’s analysis. This is because of the profound insight Marx offers about the fungible substance – i.e. value – which all the diverse components of the machine quantifiably embody, such that one can meaningfully say that more is produced than consumed. His insight (which more than makes up for any mathematical modelling infelicities in his analysis) is that, under the specific historical conditions of the capitalist mode of production, that fungible substance is a social substance, embodied specifically through our market relations. You cannot analyse the Ricardian machine, so Marx demonstrates, without analysing the way value and capitalist society constitute each other.

And this is not to make a broad but vague claim that the Ricardian machine is embedded in a wider set of social relations, and laws in the juridical sense (although of course it is); Marx demonstrates that the social relations in question in fact drive the behaviour of the Ricardian machine with the ineluctable force of physical laws. The Ricardian machine is the chaotic monster that it is precisely because its lifeblood, value, cycles between ineluctable laws of a social, and a physical, and a social kind again, as the matter in which it is embodied cycles between market exchange, and the physical metabolic process of production, and back to market exchange again.

Value cycles between ineluctable laws of a social, and a physical, and a social kind again, as the matter in which it is embodied cycles between market exchange, and the physical metabolic process of production, and back to market exchange again.

The concept of ‘value’ in Marx is therefore unique and incredibly powerful, and it is for that reason that one encounters Marxist historians, literary critics, playwrights &c, but never Sraffian historians, literary critics, playwrights &c. With Marx the mathematical modelling is not important; it is the wider implications of the thing that it is to be modelled that matter. And of these wider implications, perhaps the most obviously important are to do with the role of labour in capitalist society. In Sraffa, by contrast, the modelling improvements had been achieved by altogether dropping from the model the element of the social laws intervening in the circuit at the point of exchange, where labour plays its unique role. Which is why, as Marxists increasingly came to grasp the extent to which Marxian models looked rickety and outdated compared to the Sraffian ones, Diane Elson wrote in 1979 that Marx offers us not the rapidly waning attractions of a ‘labour theory of value’, but a much more powerful ‘value theory of labour’. As such, however, Marx’s analysis does not need to be about labour specifically within the Ricardian machine; it can be about any labour – yes, even the labour of those who write electronic textbooks.

Ignoring the Ricardian machine is imperialist and ecocidal

In 21st century Marxism (and certainly at the global economic core where the authors of the dominant electronic textbooks generally reside), it is therefore deeply unfashionable to focus on the Ricardian machine. To do so appears to divide workers into arbitrary categories of those whose labour is within the Ricardian machine, and those whose labour is in other spheres, whereas capitalist exploitation of labour knows no such boundaries, gladly exploiting workers in universities as much as factories. In addition, focusing on the Ricardian machine seems to ignore the role played in capitalist profitability by vast swathes of unwaged activity, be it our usage of social media, or the care and nurture we provide for each other in our homes and other environments of social reproduction. Further, to focus on the Ricardian machine seems to be to commit that most basic of errors in economics: treating money as a mere veil behind which economic phenomena occur, rather than a driver of them.

But as pandemic shortages illustrate, the Ricardian machine is nonetheless a real thing, out there in the world doing what it does in a manner which is distinguishable from what happens in the wider economy. And we must not lose sight of it. Indeed to do so, this article seeks to argue, is both imperialist and, in the final analysis, ecocidal.

In 21st century Marxism, it is deeply unfashionable to focus on the Ricardian machine. But it is a real thing, and we must not lose sight of it. Indeed to do so is both imperialist and, in the final analysis, ecocidal.

The reason it is imperialist to lose sight of the Ricardian machine is because of the Ricardian machine’s vastly uneven economic geography. The surplus it yields is overwhelmingly derived from extreme exploitation of labour in poor countries, at the other end of global commodity chains from consumers in rich countries, the dynamics of which chains are structured by the domination exercised by those rich countries.

It is all too easy in the UK to disparage the theoretical distinction between those who work within the Ricardian machine and those who work outside it when the comparison is between, say, stacking shelves in a UK supermarket and working as a cleaner at a UK university. Clearly no theoretical distinction between these two categories of working class labour can be worth arguing over for political purposes in a UK context. But the vast majority of the value in the parts of the Ricardian machine geographically situated in the UK (value which technically speaking is further augmented in UK supermarkets but not in UK universities) has already been created by virtue of staggering degrees of exploitation of workers in mines, on farms, in factories, and in transportation systems elsewhere the world.

The vast majority of the value in the parts of the Ricardian machine geographically situated in the UK has already been created by virtue of staggering degrees of exploitation of workers elsewhere the world.

By ‘exploitation’ what is meant here is the sheer amount of value extracted from the labour of those workers as contrasted with the value of the wage goods they consume. That exploitation is rendered invisible to us here in the UK by the opacity of the vast but sanitised influx of containerised commodities entering the UK at its ports, but it cannot be overestimated. To express the point in the physical terms in which the Ricardian machine may be readily grasped without any value theory or mathematical modelling, there is no comparable flood of stuff leaving our ports and going in the opposite direction, to serve as wage goods for all the workers who make what we consume. They cannot afford anything even remotely on the same scale as that volume of stuff. Additionally, while phenomena such as the feminisation of poverty and the unwaged burden of social reproduction are bad in the UK, those phenomena are orders of magnitude worse at the other end of global commodity chains, and so within the decision to turn a blind eye to the imperialism of the Ricardian machine, there is a similar decision being taken in respect of the geographical distribution of its specifically gendered oppressions.

And the reason it is ecocidal to lose sight of the Ricardian machine is because in huge if not overwhelming part it is the Ricardian machine which is metabolising at an unsustainable rate the natural resources furnished by the Earth. Of course sectors of the economy outside the Ricardian machine such as (for example) finance, or streaming media, rely heavily on physical infrastructure, ownership of various kinds of commodities on the part of consumers, and large amounts of energy, and their workers consume wage goods, but (as already observed) these sectors lack that property whereby they make more, in quantitative terms, than they use up. These other sectors need to grow, of course, just like any capitalist operation, but their need to grow is not physical – their need to grow is perfectly happy finding itself expressed in bigger and bigger numbers in an electronic ledger. In the case of the Ricardian machine, by contrast, the capitalist requirement that investment must be recouped with a surplus has a physical corollary in that the Ricardian machine literally has to keep metabolising physical stuff on an ever-increasing scale. This is not something we can ignore at this time of catastrophic ecological crisis.

The capitalist requirement that investment must be recouped with a surplus has a physical corollary in that the Ricardian machine literally has to keep metabolising physical stuff on an ever-increasing scale.

Towards the abolition of value

This is not to suggest that a Marxian analysis should be dropped in favour of, say, a Sraffian one – far from it: only a Marxian analysis provides us with the tools to understand the ‘animated monster’ (as Marx characterised it) of ‘value which can perform its own valorization process’. The important thing about the Ricardian machine is to understand on a qualitative level the forces that are driving its behaviour in the real world, not to be able to produce mathematically satisfactory models of that behaviour. But it does suggest that certain battle lines within Marxism need to be crossed. As things stand (to caricature only a little) we have on one side the die-hard traditionalists of Marxist economics who, while they still view the Ricardian machine as the object of study, expend their energies on such questionable endeavours as demonstrating empirical conformity of national economies to outdated Marxian models. And on the other side we have diverse philosophers, sociologists, historians, political economists and activists for whom the Marxian idea of value is a powerful conceptual toolkit which can be applied to almost anything but recognising the physicality of, and physical threat posed by, the Ricardian machine.

To be clear, in amongst those uses which are made of the concept of value by Marxists in this latter category, it continues to be deployed as an economic concept applying to the wider capitalist economy, and of course that wider capitalist economy is much critiqued from an ecological standpoint. But it is approaching the level of taboo to look directly at the Ricardian machine within the wider economy; a physical system that (a) positions the quantitative bulk of capitalist exploitation and oppression at locations which are geopolitically remote from where the bulk of the consumption takes place, and (b) is inescapably constituted to chew up our planet at an accelerating rate.

It is as if rejection of the economistic objective of mathematical modelling has led to a collective pretence that the thing to be modelled does not even exist – a pretence not available to extremely exploited workers at the other end of global commodity chains, and a pretence increasingly incompatible with our present conditions of ecological collapse. This has to change if Marxist critique is going to be applied without euphemism to the global and ecological realities of 21st century capitalism. The contradictory elements of the ontology of value – a social quantity embodied in objects the quantities of which are subject to physical laws – have to learn to sit with each other again, as they sat together in Marx’s writings. (Or, to put it in the terms that label the two present-day schools, we need to unabashedly look at the physical subject of ‘traditional Marxist’ or ‘left-Ricardian’ analysis, albeit that we should look at it through a ‘value-form’ lens.)

Value is not good. Value is the thing that is propelling the Ricardian machine inexorably forward to ecocide. It urgently needs to be abolished.

It is possible that we would not be in this position of two important but seemingly immiscible Marxian standpoints were it not for the unfortunate fact that labour outside the Ricardian machine is traditionally labelled in a way that has pejorative connotations e.g. ‘unproductive’. The category is a technical one to do with the proximity of a person’s labour to the physical self-reproduction of the Ricardian machine, without any judgment of that person (and also without class or gender implications), but there nonetheless persists an assumption that to identify a category of labour as being remote from that physical process is to be contemptuous of the people performing that labour. The inference always seems to be that value is good, and so to perform labour that does not produce it must be impliedly bad, which makes the very application of the category by traditional Marxists an affront to a large and growing category of worker. This inference is misconceived, however, and indeed constitutes an inverted understanding of the purpose of Marxian value theory. Value is not good. Value is the thing that is propelling the Ricardian machine inexorably forward to ecocide. It urgently needs to be abolished.


Clair Quentin (@_ClairQuentin)

Clair Quentin is a UK-based tax lawyer, researcher and tax justice advocate