Commentary: Transforming class struggle

Comment on Jutta Kill’s “Economic Valuation and Payment for Environmental Services”

One of the great merits of Jutta Kill's timely discussion paper is that it shows why current debates over the economic valuation of nature matter. Many of today's most important political battles are being fought in arenas that yesterday's left has not yet learned to find its way around, or sometimes even to recognize. Jutta helps open our eyes to both the existence and the terrain of one of those arenas.

The conflicts that Jutta highlights seem to me to be both a continuation and a transformation of more traditional forms of class struggle. As her paper suggests, the key battle over the new forms of economic valuation of nature is not about how to improve measurement techniques so that externalities can at long last somehow be internalized. It is not over the best ways of making an invariant nature visible to business. It is not between experts bent on creating an “indigenous” or “participatory” REDD and other experts who are indifferent to the strivings of indigenous peoples or small farmers. It is, rather, between (on the one hand) classes-in-formation whose struggles are based on questioning the whole structure of nature-as-ecosystem-services that is presupposed by these debates and (on the other) classes for whom the creation of this nature functions as a temporizing way of sidestepping debate about the political fundamentals of the current crisis.

Industrial capital lives off the contradictory, ongoing attempt to isolate and disconnect labour power from commoning activities that are both human and extra-human, and to reconnect it to systems of production, circulation and finance so that the value it creates can be more easily accumulated. It is built on efforts to convert commons into resources and militarized conservation, and all the transformations of relations among humans and extra-humans that that implies. Trading in ecosystem services – and the new economic valuation techniques it requires – extend this disconnecting-reconnecting dynamic one step further. Instead of stripping labour power from commons in order to fuse it to factories and offices, the ecosystem services economy seeks to separate out activities such as bee pollination, water purification, biodiversity or carbon-cycling processes and fasten them to trading systems aimed at pre-empting or eviscerating more traditional forms of regulation.

As is always the case, the struggles that are emerging as a result both enable and require us to look back at history with new eyes. One thing that current controversies over the economic valuation of nature teach us to understand better is the degree to which labour struggles, too, have always been about how to define nature: whether or not commons are to be enclosed and workers made dependent on capital, whether care for the sick and elderly is to be a public good or a commodity, and so on. There is a continuity here that social movements need to register. Today's big debate over ecosystem services is not about how to quantify the activities of nature any more than the big debate in an earlier era of enclosure was how to help landowners measure and fence off commons.


Image removed.Comment on the position paper by Jutta Kill:
Valuation and Payment for Environmental Services: Recognizing Nature's Value Pricing or Nature's Destruction?"