Nature, whose Nature? Competing views of the Natural

This piece by Shiraz Hussain was first published in our pamphlet, Workers’ Inferno, on Halloween 2022.

Nature and human beings stand in an inescapably close relationship. Regardless of the power that our means of production may give us over our environment, we are still ourselves products of evolution, a process itself subject to parameters set by the laws of physics which govern the whole universe.

The emotional force of the human encounter with nature speaks to a deep understanding of our connection with the natural. Tending a garden or walking in a park comforts and restores. At the other end of the scale, untamed nature evokes feelings of awe. And the study of the living world reveals not only the intricacy and beauty of the forms but a complete disregard of human expectations – penguins who form same-sex relationships, clown fish (and many other fish species) who change from a sperm-producing to an egg-laying form to suit the needs of the school, rats who forego a reward which would cause suffering to another of their species.

Nature has its own mythos, its world of spirits that inhabit and protect trees, rivers, mountains and wild places. The earth itself is generally represented as a Mother, reflecting the common identification of the Natural with the Feminine. It is surely no coincidence that the Witch, the archetype of the empowered and challenging woman, with her symbols of the work of social reproduction – the broom and the cauldron – transformed into instruments of power, is represented as drawing her power from Nature and also protecting Nature.

These symbols express a message only too relevant to our times – Nature, the great Mother, the giver of life, needs our solidarity as never before.

In understanding that we are part of Nature, we come to understand that the sense of being human is the sense of being included – in humanity, in Nature, in the totality of everything. Once we have grasped this, we cannot but feel that the differences between human beings are much less important than our common humanity. We belong to Nature, and Nature belongs to all of us.

Sadly, Capitalism has a different take. Capitalism views everything through the reducing lens of the profit motive and sees Nature as it sees humans – as a means to the extraction and expropriation of value for the benefit of the wealthy. This point of view requires its own symbolism – Civilized Rational Man, in the image of God, stands outside Nature and masters Nature through intellect and will. He does not let emotion intrude into his relationship with Nature – that would be inappropriate.The world of the emotional and the natural is left to Woman, who, like Nature, is there to be mastered. Just to leave us in no doubt, the biblical narrative represents her, in a bizarre inversion of biological reality, as coming out of Man as a sort of afterthought. The last of the trio that stands in antithesis to the Civilized and the Rational is the Savage, an animalistic human being of low intelligence who is hypersexual, violent, impulsive and antisocial.This archetype was a crucial part of the Imperial toolkit and still plays a part in shaping attitudes towards ethnic minorities and troublesome members of the working class.

These are the representations of Nature that Capitalism uses in its waxing phase, the phase of expansion. But what of the inevitable waning phase of the trade cycle, the phase of contraction, when ordinary people, outside the charmed circle of big capital, have to pay all the costs of economic crisis? The present times show us the answer – the greatest danger to Capitalism is that ordinary people come to understand that the game is rigged against them. To avoid this the ruling classes seek means to fragment the people by blaming the ills of society on designated Others. Enter Populism, the sower of lies, dissension and hatred among the People.

Populism has a view of Nature shared with the Fascism of the 1930s. Nature is no longer represented as a mother, but as a cantankerous patriarchal tribal god whose function is to invest every sort of bigotry with the authority of Holy Writ. The beauty of Nature for all to enjoy? No! This land and everything on it is for Us and not Them! They shouldn’t be here! They’re not even like us! Gay? A lifestyle choice and not natural! Transgender? A denial of the basic facts of biology! You can’t change your birth sex! Disabled people? Useless mouths! Nature says they have no right to live! As for a woman who claims to be the equal of men and denies that she is defined by her ability to bear children, how unnatural is that?

Populism certainly does a fine job of fragmenting the people, but is ultimately not a friend to Capitalism. Chaos and destruction do not make for a stable economy. Once demons have wrought havoc as asked, they have a nasty habit of turning on the rash magician who has called them forth.

Capitalism presents us with a world of shadows, mystification and lies, where ever more wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands, and where we are told that poverty and wretchedness are the fault of those that suffer them. The wealthy are credited with the magic power to create wealth seemingly out of nowhere. Obviously they have no such power – the wealth that workers create is taken from them to make the ruling classes wealthier, that is their trick, and the worker is often left with the means to make for themselves a bare-bones existence. The greater class is alienated from the enormous wealth that it produces.

The other form of alienation which Capitalism has to offer us is, of course, alienation from Nature. Even where the ordinary person can use their limited leisure and resources to enjoy contact with the natural world, they typically find themselves unable to intervene where the wealthy see an opportunity for profit in the destruction of an irreplaceable ecosystem. And we know only too well the global consequences of this power imbalance.

In the present global crisis we find ourselves called to action, not by a Deity standing outside existence, but by the voice of Nature which speaks to us from the depths of our embodied Being. Our human understanding has the power to dispel the shadows cast by the deceptions and mystifications of Capitalism. We can see with our human eyes that Humanity and Nature are not distinct and that an affront to one is an affront to both. We are as rooted in Nature as the forests. The sight of the sea reminds us that all life has its origin in the first oceans. The elements that make up our bodies and those of every living thing were forged in the death throes of long vanished stars. And the power to make a world where Humanity can attain its full flowering and where all the beauty and wonder that Nature has to offer us is preserved for us and our descendants – this power is within us. We do not need to wait for the Hero who will lead us – we are that Hero. We do not need to wait for the right time. The right time is now.