All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.1
No effort to emancipate humanity can succeed without a working class effort to scientifically understand our soil ecology and build sustainable food systems.
When Marx evoked William Petty early in the first volume of Capital, he used his quip that “labor is the father and nature the mother” of all material wealth to explain the dual character of the use value of a commodity.2 Inherent in the utility of a commodity is both the concrete labor that imparts the commodity’s useful nature, and the material substratum of the thing itself. Take the useful labor away from a commodity’s production, Marx says, and you will be left with the matter that was furnished by nature.
And so too does our ability to work hinge on nature itself. The one tradeable commodity we own, our labor power, is determined by our ability to not only have the strength to continue working, but by our assumed continued physical existence. Food is, of course, vital to both of these processes.
The push towards socialism cannot be disentangled from the urgent issues of soil erosion and crumbling food systems.
But the socialist effort to understand the nature of food production and its often neglected connection to a classless society has shown few promising efforts. The push towards socialism cannot be disentangled from the urgent issues of soil erosion and crumbling food systems. Any working class movement that wishes to succeed and break capitalist social relations must have, as one of its main objectives, a greater understanding of food systems in both theory and practice.
Autopoiesis and Externalities
Capitalism appears to perpetuate itself very well. It’s a system which has been able to reproduce itself well enough for wealth to continue to accumulate for centuries. The frequent predictions of economic collapse and final crises among leftists have, as of yet, come to nothing. The circuit of accumulation has ground on, finding new ways to exploit and appropriate in conditions that, at the end of every business cycle, we all swear should have toppled the whole thing over once and for all. Until it starts back up again that is, and we all pretend we were never so naive as to predict collapse.
But to understand where we might be going, and how we might best steer the ship, we need to understand what it is that makes a system truly self-reproducing.
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela coined the word “autopoiesis” to describe life. They wanted to know what differentiated the living from the inanimate, and in doing so, they laid the groundwork for a new cybernetic understanding of all systems. Simply put, a system is autopoietic if it can continue to self-organize its own reproduction. In Maturana and Varela’s words, an autopoietic entity is one which
"...continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components under conditions of continuous perturbations and compensation of perturbations. Therefore, an autopoietic machine is an homeostatic...system which has its own organization...as the fundamental variable which it maintains constant."3
If we confine our analysis of capitalism to the core M-C-M’ spiral, and put aside questions of the permanent crisis and falling rate of profit, we could possibly call capitalism autopoietic. It is, after all, self-expanding: it takes a series of capital inputs and, through a seeming magic trick, reproduces more for the capitalist than they put into the production process. It even remunerates the worker with a wage that is (supposed to be at least) the cost of their own reproduction. A truly homeostatic system!
But of course, capitalism requires much more than can be found in the simple sphere of economic exploitation. In fact, the only reason capitalism hasn’t collapsed already is due to the wide variety of “free gifts" produced by those supposed “system externalities”.4 Without them, it’s difficult to imagine how capitalism could have developed for as long as it has.
For example, the industrial revolution (as developed in British textile mills) was fueled by the marriage of American chattel slavery, capitalist social relations in factories and coal. The “work” that created this coal took place independent of humanity over millions of years, and the slaves producing the cotton for these factories were clearly not wage laborers. Other examples include the British navy, built from old Irish oak long since clear-cut, and, until recently, American agriculture, as it flourished off the free gifts of those benevolent microbes and the rich organic substrate in the once supremely healthy soils of the West.
So how then do we see a seemingly homeostatic, autopoietic capitalism? One that has managed to reproduce itself through various perturbations and has as its fundamental constant variable the exploitation of labor and the accumulation of capital? The simple answer is, we do not.
The various externalities that sit outside the sphere of exploitation are dwindling at alarming rates. Oil and other fossil fuels are becoming not only more expensive to pull out of the earth, but are becoming more energy intensive to extract, meaning the energy returned on energy invested ratio is falling rapidly. Oceans once teeming with fish have been all but completely pillaged, and soils, once rich in microbial life have been turned to lifeless dirt.
A system that uses up finite resources vital to its own reproduction at critically unsustainable rates cannot be called homeostatic or autopoietic.
And so, this leaves us with a burning question: if socialism is to be the next productive mode, how can we build a system that is capable of reproducing not just ourselves, but also our ecology, with the aim of being truly autopoietic?
Systems of Reproduction
Modes of production are, of course, social systems. The focus when “doing historical materialism” is always primarily on the relations of production. But here we will take a step back and look at the most vital element of all productive modes: food.
It would be a slight oversimplification to say all modes of production are fundamentally about producing food, but food (along with water, oxygen and shelter) is perhaps the most vital element to our own autopoietic existence. Food production is the prerequisite of all types of labor. Without it, we all die, and thus, the creation of food systems is at the core of all modes of production, from so-called primitive communism to modern capitalism. And so too will it be in socialism.
Socialism will need to find a way to do what no mode has ever done. It must produce food without relying on appropriating mass external inputs from, in capitalism’s case, fossil fuels or artificial inputs. But there’s another complication at play: we must learn how we can produce food with the barren soil and disastrous agricultural practices we will inherit from capitalism.
To begin to understand how this could be possible and how a socialist mode could fulfill this most basic requirement of a productive mode, we must understand what it means to have healthy, productive soil.
At the base of all modes of production lies soil.
Even hunter-gatherer societies prior to the widespread reliance on agriculture relied on healthy soil to sustain the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. It’s for this reason that a seeming disinterest in soil ecology among socialists could doom a politically successful revolution. This section will act as a primer on the basics of soil science so that we may then move on to discuss what socialists can do to build a functioning post-capitalist productive mode based on healthy soil.
First, the distinction between dirt and soil. Dirt is the inorganic component of the earth. Making up the majority of the ground where we grow our food, it is composed (in varying ratios) of sand, clay, silt and rocks. Soil, on the other hand, is the word we use for the entire web of life that exists within the ground. It is the habitat of this web of life, the dirt, water, air, etc. in the soil, but also the nearly uncountable amount of fungi, bacteria and other microbes that live oftentimes mutualistically with the crops we grow. It’s important to recognize that plants do not simply absorb the nutrients they require from the earth when they need them. They rely on the broad web of life within healthy soil to help them synthesize the chemical compounds they require to grow and flourish. Healthy soil is the key to healthy crops, productive farms and an autopoietic society.
Plants need many things to thrive, but there are three primary minerals their continued growth relies on: potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen. Among other things, potassium helps maintain the biological functioning of the plant, phosphorus helps the plant grow and reproduce, and nitrogen helps the plant photosynthesize. To elucidate the importance of the web of life we call soil, let’s focus briefly on nitrogen.
Obviously, since nitrogen is vital to photosynthesis, it is one of the most important nutrients you can feed your plants. This may sound easy enough, since nitrogen makes up roughly 75% of our atmosphere, but unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Atmospheric nitrogen is difficult for plants to absorb. This is because this nitrogen in the air takes the form of two nitrogen molecules tightly bonded together - N2. For plants to be able to absorb nitrogen, atmospheric nitrogen must undergo the nitrogen cycle.
Plants can’t absorb N2, but many bacteria can. These soil dwelling bacteria absorb the nitrogen in the atmosphere and excrete various chemical compounds, some of which other bacteria eat, and some of which plants can absorb. Through this cycle, some bacteria will produce ammonia (NH3), and others will consume that ammonia and excrete ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3), one of the compounds that our plants can finally absorb through their roots. Some plants are better at creating a nitrogen fixing environment in the soil than others, and we will return to what some of these are later when we discuss cover crops.
Fungi also play a major role in plant health. Many plants and fungi have mutually beneficial relationships that are the cornerstone of their continued existence. The root systems of various plants communicate with the fungi in the soil, exuding sugars, carbohydrates and various other chemicals (called exudates) the plants can produce themselves in abundance into the soil in return for chemicals the fungi can produce but the plant cannot.
But bacteria and fungi need to be kept in check, otherwise they would overwhelm and kill a plant for its nutrients. Enter microorganisms such as protozoa and nematodes. These microorganisms feed on bacteria and fungi, keeping the life in the soil balanced. However, too many of these microorganisms and your soil will tip too far in the other direction - too many microorganisms, no fungi, and no bacteria.
All of this should paint a very complicated picture of soil ecology. And it is - soil is extremely complex. We have yet to catalog huge numbers of soil bacteria and their relationship to the broader web of life. A single tablespoon of healthy soil can have tens of thousands of species of bacteria alone in it, to say nothing of fungi and other microorganisms.
Faced with this immeasurable variety, how does capitalist agriculture respond?
Shoot the Cat
Capitalism responds to the complex science of soil ecology by doing what Stafford Beer described as “shooting the cat”.5
When faced with interference and variety that it cannot control, many capitalist systems will just say “fuck it!” and force this variety into arbitrary stereotypes. This is exactly what capitalist agriculture does. Faced with the complexity of our soil, capitalism has eschewed the pretense that it even exists, and produces artificial fertilizers that feed its plants, but kill its soil.
Capitalist farmers till their soil to ensure it does not compact and harden for the next season’s harvest. Compacted soil is very difficult for many plant roots to penetrate. However, when soil is tilled, it breaks up the complicated web of life that we have previously described and forces farmers to rely on artificial fertilizers to produce the nutrients they need. Is the soil dying and not producing enough soluble nitrogen? Simply soak the ground with pure ammonium nitrate and the plants will grow.
And this is true - the plants will grow. But this ever diminishing reliance on the natural processes of healthy soil that produce the necessary nutrients plants need to grow and the ever increasing reliance on artificial nutrients has disastrous effects.
Firstly, as the soil dies, ever more fertilizers are needed to keep the next year’s crop viable. This leads to a cycle that eventually leads to dead soil, where very little, even with all the nitrogen fertilizer in the world, can grow. It also leads to a reliance on petrochemicals. The processes that create these fertilizers are far from green, as creating ammonia is an incredibly energy inefficient process that relies on fossil fuels.
So capitalist farmers eventually kill their soil, then what? They simply move on to other soils with higher natural microbial life, and leave the dead soils to blow away and erode, as they did in the dust bowl of the 1930s. But, of course, these free gifts of the soil in the new farmland are also eventually depleted, leading to a finite end of healthy soil able to be appropriated.
This is to say nothing of algae blooms and pollution caused by nitrogen runoff, superweeds caused by Roundup ready crops, and annual farmer reliance on irreproducible seeds (such as hybrid maize), all of which are potentially disastrous capitalist agricultural practices. But, to focus just on soil health, we must now attempt to understand what socialists can do to ward off the looming threat of our inability to produce food and create a future system that produces food agroecologically.
As stated earlier, soil ecology is incredibly complicated. Wheat crops will interact differently with the billions of microbes in our soil than maize crops, which are completely different to fruit trees, and so on and so forth. Different climates demand different approaches, and certain crops will only grow in very specific parts of the world (think coffee for example). There are also micro-variations in soil quality and growing conditions, meaning sometimes no two adjacent farms will have the exact same methods of growing food.
How can all of this be managed? Two things that are certainly vital to a sustainable and productive socialist mode are working class research into food systems and efforts to begin implementing agroecological practices today.
If you begin cursorily researching sustainable agricultural practices, you will inevitably run into two extremes: reactionaries who tell you to dig all of your available ground and plant as many potatoes as possible because the collapse is coming man, it’s just right around the corner I promise, and hippie types who will tell you all about why you should companion plant marigolds with tomatoes to definitely get a better crop, all in their latest online course, available for just five cheap monthly payments.
The left often equates research with quick, cursory Google searches into “sustainable future agricultural practices” and falls back on the false promises of permaculture or “supercrops” to solve all of our woes. Permaculture is an unintellectual mess that, while there are some good ideas in there somewhere that could be quite good in your personal garden, will never be able to answer the questions of global scale, ecological food production. We cannot get rid of large scale grain, rice and corn production without a large proportion of humanity dying off, so anything that promises to get rid of “monocultures” as such should simply be written off. As for supercrops, while there are certainly plants not being utilized to their full capabilities, there unfortunately exists no plant capable of solving the issues around creating new food systems completely by itself, in part because food systems are a much bigger project than just substituting in one plant and keeping everything else the same.
But we have to begin somewhere, and while parsing the science of ecological food production from the pseudoscience can seem nearly impossible, there are several areas of improvement we can identify right away: building back the organic material of our topsoils, balancing nutrient inputs/outputs and better crop selection and planning.
Many of these methods involve a kind of black boxing of our soil ecology. Where capitalist agriculture eschews the variety in our soil for the sake of simplicity (fertilizer goes in, food comes out), what ecological food production does is cultivate that variety not so we can command every microbe and earthworm in our soil to do our exact bidding, but so the ecology of our soil can manage itself. As long as we build healthy substrates of organic material and monitor them closely to match the needs of each of our crops, inputs and tweaks can be kept to a minimum.
And so, as we discussed earlier, soil disturbance from tilling breaks up the web of life in our soil that allows our plants to grow. Methods such as no-till farming are gaining in popularity, and are surprisingly simple. Popular among many home gardeners and small sized market gardeners, no-till farming involves laying a thick layer of rich compost on top of your soil, and planting directly into it. The soft compost allows roots to form and grow and doesn’t disturb the microbes in the soil beneath, leading to a simple method of non-destructive farming that relies much less on artificial inputs than traditional tilling practices. Reapplication of compost after harvest eventually creates a thick and healthy organic layer of untilled soil, with different types of compost supplying more or less of specific nutrients to our plants.
Mulching with various kinds of other organic materials also creates healthy soil. Mulch will not only eventually break down into the soil, but can protect it from erosion and compaction from the elements. This can be combined with planned crop rotations to give the soil a rest to rebuild itself (or even used as pasturage for a time). The manure from the grazing animals also helps to build healthy soil.
Cover crops during these crop rotations are also key. Bare soil is something that should be avoided at all costs. Plants such as clover, vetch and beans encourage nitrogen fixing bacteria to live in their roots, and thus are extremely useful as cover crops to build nitrogen levels in our soil. There are two ways cover crops can be useful. The first is to have frost resistant crops growing in your beds over winter when they would otherwise be empty, providing nitrogen fixation or food for pasture raised animals. The other is to use cover crops to intersperse them throughout your crops during the main growing season.
All of these methods help to build back that organic layer of healthy, complex soil, but it’s also fairly obvious that they all are done with a focus on reducing reliance on artificial fertilizers. By using, say, a compost made predominantly with manure and green waste, we will have an input much richer in nitrogen than if we used simply rotted down wood chips. But both can be useful in different scenarios depending on our crops.
And, of course, just as when Marx talked about capitalist agriculture “disturbing the circulation of matter between man and soil” (i.e. sewage being pumped into the ocean), we need to be considering ways to close the rift between what we consume from the soil, and what we return to it.6 Human manure is produced in abundance, and currently, it is wasted.
Finally, proper crop selection is vitally important. Native crops will be more used to the soil biology of our region and, for the time being at least, used to its weather patterns. Matching parts of our diets to native crops (or at least crops suited to our climate niches) could be an important facet of producing ecologically. This ties into perhaps altering consumption habits to not only match our geography, but also our seasons. Summer could see more vegetables and fruits and less meat consumed, while winter could see more meat consumed as a caloric reserve when fewer plants grow. But, of course, investment in a powerful, more sustainable transport system is vital to this process of building a new food system, and would allow for transportation of crops such as coffee or mangoes to non-tropical zones.
A food system is circular, and “begins” with sowing seeds and doesn’t end until that food has been cooked and consumed.
It should be clear then, that a food system is much more than simply growing food. A food system is circular, and “begins” with sowing seeds and doesn’t end until that food has been cooked and consumed. Transportation, planning, and food preparation are just as much a part of a food system as crop rotations. And this is where our research needs to begin: how can we build circular, sustainable food systems that produce food without waste and make healthy food freely available in the face of a rapidly changing global climate? I say “we” because the project is too large for any one person or group. The general intellect, built from ecologists studying sustainable inputs, programmers building tools to share and store new information, etc., is the only unit up for the task. Connecting these ideas and using them in practice to push to a better future must be the role of the socialist.
“Food insecurity” - a bourgeois term for the capitalist mode starving its workers - affects roughly a third of humanity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN warned recently that a soccer-sized pitch of soil erodes every five seconds. This is leading to a 90+% loss of healthy soil able to be used for farming by 2050, just 27 years from now.7
If socialists are going to promise an abundant future, or any future at all, it is clear we must start taking soil ecology and food systems seriously. Parsing the pseudoscience of many of these agroecological methods from the hard science as well as creating research networks matched to different geological and climatic conditions needs to be a main priority of all mass proletarian movements.
It is for this reason that socialists need to take control of the research being done into food systems. Capitalism has shown an inability to study the systems that could one day be the difference between the survival of a large mass of humanity and our ecology, and their utter destruction. Just as importantly, we need to be practicing these methods, for research purposes and practical ones. New theories need to be tested and adapted, and if capitalism can’t provide enough food for its people, we need to be able to prove that socialism is the only alternative.
1. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 329.
2. Ibid, 31.
3. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (D. Reidel, 1972), 79.
4. Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015).
5. Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom (1974).
6. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 328-329.
7. “FAO Warns 90 Percent of Earth’s Topsoil at Risk by 2050”, (UN News, July 22 2022), Link.