The Dialectic of the Nature-Society-System

  • Christian Fuchs ICT&S Center - Advanced Studies and Research in Information and Communication Technologies & Society, University of Salzburg
Keywords: nature, society, social theory


There are four logical possibilities for conceiving the relationship of nature and society: the reduction of society to nature, the projection of nature into society, dualism, and a nature-society-dialectic. This differentiation results in four different approaches. Nature is a self-organizing system that produces an evolutionary hierarchy of interconnected systems with specific qualities. Society is a product of nature where humans produce and reproduce structures that enable and constrain human practices in dynamic processes. Parts of nature are observed and appropriated by humans from within society, these parts are socially constructed and form a subsystem of society. The self-organization cycle of nature and the self-organization cycle of the socio-sphere are mutually connected in a productive cycle of society where natural self-organization serves as the material foundation that enables and constrains social self-organization and human production processes transform natural structures and incorporate these very structures into society as means of production (technologies, raw materials). The economy is that part of the socio-sphere where the relationship between nature and the socio-sphere is established, the mediation is achieved by human labour processes. Nature enters the economic process as material input in the form of means of production (constant capital): machines, raw materials, auxiliary materials. Organized nature that is part of the production process in the form of technology increases the productivity of labour and hence reduces the costs of variable capital (total amount of wages) and increases the speed of the production of surplus value. The production system of modern society is oriented on economic profit and productivity, ecological depletion and pollution are by-products of modernization. The Fordist production model that originated in the West and was copied by the Soviet Union is one of the major causes of the global ecological crisis. The productive forces are in modern society socially and ecologically destructive forces. In late capitalism there is a tendency of commodification and privatization of nature and human knowledge. Especially in the later writings of Marx and Engels one can find formulations that suggest a productivist logic that sees nature as an enemy opposed to man, as a resource and object that must be mastered, exploited, and controlled. But throughout the works of Marx and Engels one can find many passages where they argue that there is an antagonism between capitalism and nature that results in ecological degradation and that a free society is also based on alternative, sustainable relationships between man and nature. The idea of an alternative society-nature-relationship and of nature conservation can already be found in the works of Marx and Engels, they are precursors of ecological thinking. In Orthodox Marxism dialectical thinking has been interpreted as deterministic and mechanic laws and misused for arguing that the Soviet system is a free society. An alternative is a dialectic that stresses human practice and that structures condition alternative possibilities for action. Dialectic thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch have argued that nature is a producing subject, a non-teleological subject (Marcuse). Describing nature as a subject implies that if man destroys nature the latter as a producing subject will probably produce uncontrollable negative effects on society and that hence nature should be appropriated in sustainable ways. Matter is a natural subject that acts upon itself, whereas man is a human self-conscious subject that acts upon nature and society.