Nature, production and system change

System change not climate change. Yes, but how and why do social systems change? What is behind this?

What do we mean when we say we ‘produce’ something? What are we doing? Basically, we are changing the form of something that originally came from nature (or, rather, the rest of nature, since of course we are part of it ourselves). We are changing nature, with the ultimate aim of surviving better within it. All animals, in fact all living things, do. Nature is not something static. Like everything else, it is changing all the time – not just through physical forces like the weather, volcanic activity, solar activity, but also through the activity of living things, both plants and animals.

All living things work, in the sense of expending energy, to extract from the rest of nature what they need to survive. Humans are no exception. We have to as well.

Although other animals are better at doing many things with their bodies than humans are (better eyesight, hearing, sense of smell, but also other abilities we don’t possess), our particular nature as an animal (symbolic thought, vocalisation, writing, prolonged maturation and passing on knowledge) gives us one advantage over all other animals. We are not dependent just on our own bodies – our hands, arms, legs, etc – to extract what we need from the rest of nature. We can make instruments (from materials found in nature) to help us do this:

‘The use and construction of instruments of labour, although present in germ among certain species of animals, is characteristic of the specifically human labour process, and Franklin therefore defines man as ‘a tool-making animal’ (Marx, Capital, Vol 1, ch 7).

Benjamin Franklin’s definition is a good one. We are tool-making animals, i.e, we are animals, but specifically animals which make and use tools. These tools have evolved and developed over time:

‘Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e, the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organisation of society, deserve equal attention?’ (Marx, ch 15, section 1).

It does, because:

‘Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.’

This is the ‘materialist conception of history’. Today, all serious theories of history are ‘materialist’ in the sense that they analyse history in terms of material causes. The idea that history is the working out of some god’s plan or that some god intervenes in history – what might be called ‘the creationist conception of history’ – is as absurd as creationism is in biology.

The ‘matter’ of the materialist conception of history is how humans are organised to meet their material needs, how they are organised to produce these from the rest of nature. The different technologies used by human societies to obtain from nature what they need give rise to different forms of society and as technology changes so does society; in fact as technology develops and progresses so does human society.

But how exactly do changes in technology – changes in the way humans interact with nature to live – lead to a change in the structure of society?

Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 famously opens with: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ How, then, are class struggles related to changes in technology?

‘It is the development of tools, of these technical aids which men direct, which is the main cause, the propelling force of all social development. It is self-understood that the people are ever trying to improve these tools so that their labour be easier and more productive, and the practice they acquire in using these tools, leads their thoughts upon further improvements. Owing to this development, a slow or quick progress of technique takes place, which at the same time changes the social forms of labour. This leads to new class relations, new social institutions and new classes. At the same time social, ie, political struggles arise. Those classes predominating under the old process of production try to preserve artificially their institutions, while the rising classes try to promote the new process of production; and by waging the class struggles against the ruling class and by conquering them they pave the way for the further unhindered development of technique’ (Anton Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism, 1909, Chapter II).

The materialist conception of history explains the change from one system of society to another, not just in terms of slow technological changes, but in terms also of a class struggle, with one class championing a new technology against an entrenched class benefiting from institutions relevant to an outdated technology. Such a disconnect exists today, and has done for some 150 years, between already ‘socialised’ methods of production, a vast cooperative effort linking people working in different parts of the world, and property institutions dating from a time when production was still local and individual. Before humanity can organise its current relationship with the rest of nature in a rational and sustainable way this contradiction has to be ended.


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