Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2016

Flint, Michigan and the Second Contradiction of Capitalism

Filed under: Ecology,economics,water — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

In recent days Flint, Michigan has been in the news because the city’s water has not only become undrinkable but also hazardous for use in bathing or dishwashing. To save money, the cash-strapped city discontinued using nearby Detroit’s water supply in April 2014 that fed from Lake Huron and switched to the Flint River. Flint, like most of Michigan’s rust belt including Detroit, has lost tax revenue because the auto industry and most manufacturing began to go belly up in the 1970s.

Not long after the city began drawing water from the Flint River, residents began to complain about the foul smell and taste of the water. Scientists conducted a test and discovered that there were levels of lead that were dangerous to one’s health. The lead was not found in the Flint River itself but leached from the lead in pipelines that had corroded under the impact of the river’s excessively chloridated water, about 8 times as much as that found in Detroit’s and likely the result of road salts flowing into the river as well as the chlorine used for purification. To complicate matters, by interacting with the pipelines the chlorine had dissipated as part of a chemical reaction and lost its ability to suppress bacteria. Flint has had a spike in Legionnaire’s Disease, with ten fatalities since the switch. Undoubtedly there is a connection to this epidemic and water contamination.

Thus, the water had a double whammy of lead and toxic organisms.

As of last month, more than 43 people had elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream. Lead poisoning is a serious business. Not only is it painful, it can also lead to permanent brain damage—and ultimately to death. In the 1970s there were frequent reports about young children getting lead poisoning by eating paint chips in slum housing to slake their hunger.

City residents have been living under a Greek-style austerity regime ever since December 2011 presided over by “emergency managers” appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder. In 2014, the switch to Flint River was mandated by Darnell Early, an African-American and long-time Democrat. After leaving Flint in such dire straits, Early went on to his next job running Detroit’s school system. The city’s teachers have staged a series of “sickouts” to protest cutbacks in health coverage.

As another sign of Democratic Party dereliction of duty, the local EPA chief Susan Hedman learned about the contamination threat in February 2015 but failed to put it on the front burner until November. A Huffington Post article dated January 12th provides telling detail on the EPA’s role in the disaster. It appears that after an EPA whistle-blower named Miguel Del Toral released a report on the hazardous state of Flint’s water to a city resident, Hedman sought damage control rather than an emergency response. A phalanx of local officialdom assured the world that everything was okay:

City and state officials downplayed Del Toral’s report, and the EPA said it was only a draft that wasn’t supposed to be released. Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told a local reporter in July that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” In August, department officials met with Flint residents — including Walters — and told them that Del Toral had been “handled” and that his report wouldn’t be finalized.

Although I’ve never been to Flint, I probably know more about the city than most people having read Sol Dollinger’s “Not Automatic” and having interviewed him about doing political work in the city alongside his wife Genora in the 1940s and 50s.

Sol’s book was a chronicle of the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 in which Genora played a key role as organizer of the women’s auxiliary that fought the cops in a famous pitched battle outside the GM plant gates. As she recounted in an oral history session with Susan Rosenthal in 1995, Flint was as poverty-stricken in 1937 as it is today:

Conditions in Flint before the strike were very, very depressing for working people. We had a large influx of workers come into the city from the deep South. They came north to find jobs, because there was no work back home. They came with their furniture strapped on old jalopies and they’d move into the cheapest housing that they could find. Usually these were just little one- or two-room structures with no inside plumbing and no inside heating arrangements. They just had kerosene heaters to heat their wash water, their bath water, and their homes. You could smell kerosene all over their clothing. They were very poor.

Another important source of knowledge about Flint comes from Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, his first film and by far his best. It begins by recounting his father’s job on the assembly line making a good union wage that was made possible by the 1937 strike that the film includes footage from. Whether or not Moore also credited FDR’s New Deal as well, I cannot remember at this point but there is little doubt that as Moore became more of an establishment figure that is certainly how he saw the “good years” of the 1950s—a product of workers struggles and FDR’s taking on the fat cats. What is missing in Moore’s analysis and that of the Democratic Party left that remains nostalgic for the New Deal is an understanding of how capitalism works.

Flint collapsed not because GM boss Roger Smith was a bad guy or because Ronald Reagan became president but because the auto industry became unprofitable. Capital flows where profits can be made. To think that Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or any other of these rust belt cities can return to the “good old days” is utopian capitalism, to coin a phrase.

This is not to say that we should not single out Republicans for being evil bastards. This Rick Snyder, who gained his wealth as a venture capitalist, is about as bad as they come. He supports open shop legislation, which would have the effect of undermining what’s left of the organized labor movement in Michigan. He is also hostile to abortion rights and blocked same-sex couples from sharing health benefits as do married couples enjoy (a right that “radicals” opposed to gay marriage fail to appreciate.) His last “accomplishment” was banning Syrian refugees from Michigan.

Although he never wrote about Flint specifically, I could not help but think of James O’Connor as I read about the water crisis over the past few days. Now 85, O’Connor has dropped out of sight over the past fifteen years at least, attributable to advancing years and a host of health problems as I understand it. That is too bad because he certainly would have a lot to say about what is going on the USA today, just as much as David Harvey, Naomi Klein, or any other critic of the capitalist system if not more so.

I got to know O’Connor a bit in the late 90s when he was a subscriber to PEN-L. We exchanged friendly emails from time to time that led to him inviting me to write an article about David Harvey for the journal “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” at the time. Probably a mistake for him to extend the invitation and me for accepting it since I find writing on the Internet much less problematic.

In any case, despite my angry response to him nixing the article, I remain influenced by his writings and urge younger comrades not familiar with his work to look into them since they remain as relevant as ever, especially his theory of the “second contradiction of capitalism” that can be read in “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Socialism” online.

O’Connor describes what is happening around the country with alacrity:

Examples of capitalist accumulation impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions, hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital, are many and varied. The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places, and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature. Urban capital running on an ((urban renewal treadmill” impairs its own conditions, hence profits, for example, in the form of congestion costs and high rents.’ The decrepit state of the physical infrastructure in the United States may also be mentioned in this connection.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system cannot exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls “simple reproduction” and what many greens call “maintenance” is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O’Connor, as capital’s power over labor increases, there will be a contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains “when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers.” The unintended result is that the worker’s loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities as is obviously borne out by the closing of Wal-Mart stores all around the world this week.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about “globalization”.

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the “conditions of production”. The “conditions of production” require three elements: human labor power which Marx called the “personal conditions of production”, environment which he termed “natural or external conditions of productions” and urban infrastructure, the “general, communal conditions of production”.

All three of these “conditions of productions” are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the “conditions of production” were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don’t realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O’Connor calls the “second contradiction”. He says, “Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the ‘productivity’ of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs.”

Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power that was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism were a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the “first contradiction” (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroys the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

What Engels observed in the “Great Towns of England” was an acute crisis based on the Second Contradiction of capitalism. Places like Manchester were becoming uninhabitable due to the necessity of capital to maximize profits without being ready to make the commitment to defend the conditions of the reproduction of capital itself: clean water, fresh air, public health, education, etc.

England, Germany, the United States and Japan of course made great headway in the twentieth century in resolving these types of contradictions at the expense of the colonized world. While the air and water of Manchester may have became *relatively cleaner*, the air and water of Calcutta worsened as the satanic mills of England migrated overseas.

And just as conditions in Flint in 1937, based on the First Contradiction of Capitalism, created the sit-down strike, so will the Second Contradiction lead to protests today. When the stakes were a living wage in 1937; the stakes of living—period—are even greater today:


  1. Thanks Louis. More on Flint from historian Andrew Highsmith: “Highsmith lived in Mott Park for three and a half years while conducting research for his book, “Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis.” The book was published last month.

    The book’s title phrase, “Demolition means progress,” encapsulates “the operating ethos of the nation’s metropolitan leadership from at least the 1930s to the present,” according to the book’s description.

    “Throughout, the leaders of Flint and other municipalities repeatedly tried to revitalize their communities by demolishing outdated and inefficient structures and institutions and overseeing numerous urban renewal campaigns—many of which yielded only more impoverished and more divided metropolises,” the description reads.

    The article on Flint schools is based on some of the research from that book, Highsmith said.


    The contradictions of capitalism are interestingly if tragically played out politically in strategies of urban renewal, as you noted, and in America with race always central, of course.


    Comment by David Green — January 16, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

  2. […] with permission, from Louis Proyect’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist. Lou also hosts the online discussion group […]

    Pingback by Flint's poisoned water and capital's second contradiction — January 23, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

  3. […] This article originally appeared on Louis Proyect’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist. […]

    Pingback by Flint’s poisoned water and capital’s second contradiction | Daily Blue Planet — January 26, 2016 @ 3:33 am

  4. […] Although I eventually moved away from O’Connor’s theory and toward those developed by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett that I considered better grounded in Marxism, I remain indebted to his insights that I credited in articles on Hurricane Sandy and Flint, Michigan. […]

    Pingback by Jason Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital” | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 10, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

  5. […] el marxismo, sigo en deuda por sus hallazgos que alabé en articulos sobre el Huracán Sandy y Flint (Michigan). En 1998 escribí una breve crítica de Justicia, Naturaleza y la geografía de la diferencia de […]

    Pingback by Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital de Jason Mooore  – Derrota y navegación — November 13, 2016 @ 4:17 am

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