Value, Nature, and Labor: A Defense of Marx

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19 Scopus citations


In this theoretical intervention, I argue that Karl Marx’s theory of value remains a powerful way to understand nature–society relations under capitalism. I suggest environmentalist critiques often misunderstand Marx’s value theory as a theory that “values” workers over nature. His critical theory is better understood as an explanation of how capitalist value exploits both workers and the environment. My defense of Marxian value theory is articulated through five “theses.” I provide empirical illustration based on recent research into the nitrogen fertilizer industry. (1) Value theory does not refer to all values. (2) Marx’s contention that nature does not contribute to value helps us explain its degradation under capitalism. (3) Marx’s value theory rooted in production allows for a critique of environmental economic valuation schemes (e.g. payments for ecosystem services) which are based on neoclassical value theories rooted in consumption/exchange. (4) Value is abstract social labor, but that means it also abstracts from nature. (5) Capital does value certain parts of nature and that matters. I conclude by advocating a “value theory of nature” in the spirit of Diane Elson’s powerful articulation of Marx’s “value theory of labor.”

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)39-52
Number of pages14
JournalCapitalism, Nature, Socialism
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2017


  • labor
  • nature
  • Value

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

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