On Eco-Revolutionary Prudence: Capitalism, Communism, and the Precautionary Principle


But as Brecht explained in his ‘Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House,’ it is irrational to cling hopelessly to a burning house, as the flames lick its walls and singe our brows, in sheer terror of stepping into the world beyond. Capitalism is such a burning house. -- John Bellamy Foster1

Many indigenous peoples take the position that all social policies should be entered into only after consideration of their likely implications, both environmentally and culturally, for descendants seven generations in the future. Consequently a number of seemingly good ideas for solving short run problems are never entered into because no one can reasonably predict their longer term effects. -- Ward Churchill2


Capitalism is, in fact, a burning house. The global economy is increasingly shaped and driven by destabilizing speculative bubbles and short-term profit-making in financial markets combined with the long-run stagnation of productive activity. Corporate capital and the super-rich absorb a growing share of income and wealth while the overwhelming majority of workers worldwide cannot find decent jobs. Meanwhile the production system, despite its slower growth, is rapidly encroaching on multiple planetary limits to a sustainable matter-energy throughput – one consistent with a healthy development of human beings co-evolving with other species. In short, the system is not delivering the goods to most people even as it continues to deplete and vitiate the natural conditions of human development.3

At the same time, the system’s propaganda machine urges caution and prudence in all projects of reform – not to speak of fundamental system change. Proposals to seriously regulate markets and competitive profit-driven production are seen as reckless experiments and/or misguided attempts to revive long discredited Soviet central planning and other state-activist devices. Even among liberals the general tendency is to seek policy solutions in minor alterations of the tax system, together with extensions of markets and private property to incorporate the “external effects” of capitalist production. Mainstream caution regarding the policy regime thus serves as a figleaf for the epochal mad scientist experiment being perpetrated on the planet by the capital accumulation process, with its inexorably incautious utilization of any and all material and social conditions (including science), indeed of life itself, as means of competitive money-making. What should seem wise and prudent – abandoning capitalism’s burning house and constructing a new one – is made to appear childish and imprudent, while acceptance of capital’s ongoing plunder and befouling of the earth and its inhabitants becomes the height of maturity.

Even among worker-community movements struggling against the system’s immiserating tendencies, it often appears that if capitalism is a burning house, it is one without a door or windows to escape though. Realism, the perceived absence of a systemic alternative, seems to dictate that popular struggles reconcile themselves to the power of capitalist production, finance, and the market over people’s individual and collective existences. Meanwhile the roster of feasible reforms and their attractiveness for human development progressively shrink as economic activity and its natural and cultural environment become ever more financialized, privatized, and marketized.

In this context, Peter Hudis has made a noteworthy practical-theoretical contribution with his recent book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism.4 Hudis’s reinterpretation of Marx’s entire body of work yields three conclusions when applied to the current conjuncture. First, the incapacitation of potentially revolutionary movements by the seeming absence of systemic alternatives is itself an outgrowth of capitalist alienation, which places workers and communities under the domination of institutions and forces that are ultimately of their own creation. The reproduction of capitalist relations – with their confinement and distortion of human development – is itself dependent upon the physical, intellectual and cultural activity of working people. By placing people under the command of conditions that they themselves created, capitalism is made to seem as natural as life itself. It becomes difficult for many people to even imagine an alternative, de-alienated situation in which workers and communities rule over the conditions of their own development. Hudis’s perspective thus largely explains the focus of many worker-community movements on minor reforms within the current system of capitalist production, exchange, and distribution. At the same time, it helps account for the fact that the most openly anti-capitalist struggles are being waged on the system’s periphery, where indigenous communities are fighting to protect and reinvigorate their traditional communal systems of economic provisioning in the face of incursions by transnational capital. That the hunger for alternatives to capitalism is still evident throughout the world is testimony to the fundamental human need for, and drive toward, freedom (free development) in and through material-social relations.

Moreover – and this is the second practical conclusion that can be drawn from Hudis’s analysis – the partial paralysis of anti-capitalist revolution by popular uncertainty and caution about “what comes next?” is in no way an inexplicable or irrational paralysis in and of itself, that is, even apart from the alienated conditions and ruling class propaganda in and against which people live, develop, and struggle. There is no guarantee that a revolutionary struggle against capitalism will not have the end result of restoring capitalist relations in new forms, or creating new kinds of alienated socio-economic relations that hierarchically and undemocratically constrain and distort the life opportunities of workers and communities. History does after all demonstrate this possibility. As popular insurrections unfold – and we have seen again recently in Greece and elsewhere how such developments can be triggered by sheer material deprivation, insecurity, and desperation under conditions of capitalist crisis – more and more workers may come to see the fundamentally alienated, and socially and ecologically irrational, character of capitalism. But at least capitalism is a familiar enemy! Workers, communities, and the planet as a whole need some assurance that the toppling of capitalism will not lead to something just as bad or even worse.

All of this leads directly to the third lesson from Hudis’s treatise on Marx, namely that the primary responsibility of communist analysis must be to wage a never-ending battle against all forms of human alienation. While demonstrating how capitalism subordinates people’s life opportunities to their own collective material-social creations, communists must prioritize the de-alienation of human development – the putting of workers and communities in command of their own living and working conditions. Achieving, maintaining and deepening this worker-community governance over the conditions of human development, thereby maximizing opportunities for free human development, should be the prime directive in all analyses of revolutionary movements, strategies, and tactics, and in all institutional projections of post-capitalist society.

After a synopsis of Hudis’s argument, the present discussion nudges it in a practical-ecological direction. Two devices are employed. First, the instrumentalist criterion of social justice, as defended most cogently by Steven R. Hickerson, is proposed here as an evaluative framework for the kind of de-alienated human development that Marx appears to have had in mind as an alternative to capitalism.5 Under instrumentalism, a just society is one that maximizes opportunities for all its members to participate in an ongoing evaluation and modification of its own power structure. This “instrumentalized” version of Hudis’s interpretation is then evaluated ecologically. The central concern here is whether communism, in its focus on the conditions for human development, might imply an anti-ecological element of control over and/or use of natural conditions, including non-human species. It is suggested that Hudis’s interpretation need not be anti-ecological insofar as it is informed by the crucial ecological elements in Marx’s thinking on both capitalism and communism – elements consistent both with instrumental justice and with sustainability as conceived by ecological economists. Communism, as outlined by Marx and Hudis, fully encompasses the pro-ecological de-alienation of the natural conditions of human development.

The second tool I use to build on Hudis’s work is the Precautionary Principle from environmental economics and law. In its current usage, this principle basically says that if a particular action may be harmful to the environment or to public health, there is a case for preventive regulation. The mainstream controversy surrounding the principle is surveyed using the instrumental recasting of Hudis. This interpretive survey emphasizes the ways in which capitalist alienation, in both theory and practice, undercuts the application of the Precautionary Principle to the material production system while reinforcing its distorted application to changes in the social relations of production. A less dichotomous application of the Precautionary Principle means working toward a new system in which both socio-economic institutions and material production are subject to democratic control. Only then can the Precautionary Principle become an instrument for the free development of human beings sustainably co-evolving with nature.

Hudis on Alienation and De-Alienation

Hudis detects a primary thread running through Marx’s entire body of work, embodied in two claims: (1) The contradictions of capitalism, and the imperative for anti-capitalist revolution, are rooted in the alienation built into this system. (2) The future, post-capitalist society will feature de-alienated socio-economic and political relationships in which human development and life opportunities are no longer constrained and distorted by institutions and forces created by human beings. As per (1), Hudis refers to capitalist alienation as the inversion in which “the subject becomes the predicate and the predicate becomes the subject,” so that “the products as well as the actions of people take on the form of an autonomous power that determine and constrain the will of the subjects that engender them.”6 Hudis argues that the critique of this inversion is “one of the major normative principles” that Marx employs in his analysis of capitalism and associated projections of post-capitalist possibilities.7 This interpretation, we should note, need not discount the importance of Marx’s analyses of particular capitalist institutions and processes. Rather, Hudis sees the inversion, and the struggle against all forms of inversion in theory and practice, as the guiding theme in Marx’s specific analyses of economic and political phenomena. For instance, with regard to the capitalist state, Marx’s critique of Hegel points out that even though, in reality, “civil society ... is the active principle that brings the modern state into being, the latter becomes a ‘person apart’ that dominates, controls, and restricts civil society.”8

Similarly, with respect to the economy, Marx’s value-analysis is based squarely on the claim that “living labour serves as the substance of value only when labour assumes a specific social form – the dual form of concrete versus abstract labour.” This social abstraction of labor requires the alienation of workers from control over the conditions and results of production as well as from their own laboring activity; in other words abstract labor “can serve as the substance of value only if it is alienated labour.”9 Marx’s analysis of the commodity, exchange value, and exploitation of labor is thus fully in line with a research project guided by the question: “How does it happen that [people’s] relations assume an independent existence over them? And that the forces of their own life become superior to them?”10

For Hudis, Marx’s critique of capitalism does not center on economic, social and environmental crises, or even on the impoverishment of the majority of working people as a condition of wealth accumulation at the top (what Marx termed the “absolute general law of capital accumulation”11). Rather, Marx’s prime target is the alienation of human activity, institutions, and material-social forces under this system. The various contradictions, crises, and irrationalities capitalism generates should be seen as results, as symptoms of its alienated or inverted character, “in which individuals become dominated by social relations and products of their own making,” and “the self-development of individuals becomes thwarted by the products of their own activity.”12

Accordingly, in “Marx’s concept of the new society ... social relations cease to operate independently of the self-activity of the associated individuals.... Human power, he insists, must become a self-sufficient end – it must cease to serve as a means of some other end.”13 Under communism, people will “feel at one with [their] objective manifestations, instead of being controlled and dominated by them.”14 In discussing this alternative, Hudis focuses on the general rule shaping Marx’s projections, namely that he “never endorses a given social form as the solution, unless it avoids the tendency of human subjective activity to become constrained by forces of its own making.”15 Hence, Marx rules out generalized commodity exchange and value production as the economic basis of the new society because this form “crystallizes the subjection of individuals to social relations of their own making.” Instead, labor must be “freely associated labor” in which all members of society participate.16 Marx’s communism has no place for “any power – be it the state, a social plan, or the market – that takes on a life of its own and utilizes human powers as a mere means to its fruition and development.”17

Hudis emphasizes that Marx’s concept of freedom is historical and dialectical: free human development can only be conceived as an outgrowth of worker-community struggles in and against their alienated material-social context. Marx’s stress on capitalist alienation and communist de-alienation is thus interwoven with his “effort to discern the idea of freedom in reality itself.” Bourgeois philosophy, by contrast, merely “mirrors the contradictions of the modern world insofar as freedom and self-determination are posited at the expense of maintaining a connection with the material world” – a world in which “freedom and sensuous reality confront each other as mortal enemies.”18 Free human development is not something that can be formulated, as a blueprint, by abstract philosophy. Marx’s materialist analysis of capitalism, and his “reticence about indulging in detailed speculation about the future society” are thus “closely connected to his opposition to the subject-predicate inversion.” Any ex ante blueprint of the future society formulated “for the proletariat, or irrespective or what it is, amounts to foisting a product of intelligence or imagination upon the actual subject of history.”19

Nonetheless, insofar as capitalist alienation “can only be inverted through the conscious intervention of a human subject that strives to reorganise social relations from top to bottom,” there is a role for theory in the revolutionary process. Such theory “helps disclose the complex forms and dynamics of capitalism” and “help[s] bring forth a conceptual alternative.” By “elucidating the elements of the future . . . contained within the present,” theory can “elicit and build upon mass consciousness,” even though “it is not reducible to it.”20 This is how, according to Hudis, “Marx’s writings [and those of present-day communists] serve as a kind of midwife of the new society”; this revolutionary midwifery in effect occupies a wise middle ground between the “voluntarism and elitism that have marred far too many experiments at social transformation.”21

Alienation, De-Alienation, and Instrumental Justice

Hudis’s interpretation can be made a bit more practical using Hickerson’s instrumental criterion of social justice.22 Instrumental justice offers a useful angle here because, like the alienation/de-alienation approach to capitalism and communism, it naturally perceives the structure, processes, and results of human activity as an evolving material-social unity. As Hickerson puts it, instrumentalism “rejects the idea of an artificial separation of means and ends,” and attempts to “integrate process and distributive criteria” in line with its vision of the economy as “an ever changing constellation of institutionalized relationships.”23 Hickerson thus rejects any “monistic, aprioristic or final dogmatic statement of the conditions constituting justice” insofar as it “precludes the possibility of its evolutionary development in accord with changing circumstances.”24 In short, rather than imposing a detailed a priori blueprint on the human development process, the instrumentalist criterion comprises an evolutionary evaluative framework – one that can be used to judge the extent to which “any social formation” or “any social solution” is either de-alienated or, instead, “acts behind the backs of individuals” and/or “imposes itself irrespective of the self-activity of the subject.”25 Instrumentalism can thus assist communist theory in its role as revolutionary midwife: that of helping “the new society ... emerge from within the womb of the old one” by informing, and being informed by, worker-community struggles without imposing a detailed plan or reducing theory to popular consciousness.26

But what, exactly, is the instrumental criterion? It is simply that a just society must maximize the opportunities for a “conscious societal deliberation” in which society engages in an ongoing “valuation of its own power structure,”27 not limited by power-inequalities among individuals. Similar to Hudis’s perspective on alienation/de-alienation, instrumentalism presumes the possibility of “extending the bounds of human potential and the capacity for effective participation” in social evaluations and decision-making, as capitalism’s class divisions and other forms of oppression are overcome.28 The instrumental criterion thus specifies a just distribution of material wealth as one which allows all members of society to participate in the ongoing societal deliberation on, and modification of, its own power structure. In sum, a “just institutionalized power structure is the means to the achievement of a just pattern of distribution, which, in its turn, becomes a further means to the enhancement of the capacity of the community to critically evaluate this power structure and to effectively modify it when necessary.”29

The instrumental justice criterion draws attention to a necessary practical-critical element in the communist analysis of capitalist alienation, namely, the “dissonance between existing knowledge about the conditions which foster human life and facilitate the development of individual capacities for participation in community affairs and the extant power system which, to a significant degree, controls this knowledge and even distorts it for the benefit of limited interests.”30 With regard to ecological decisions, there is a crucial role for the dissemination of natural scientific as well as economic knowledge as a basis for a just process of societal deliberation on its own power structure. In addition, the instrumental criterion can and should be applied not just to the power structure of society as a whole, but to the organizations of workers and other oppressed groups. There is a clear need for “a broadly inclusive, informed and genuinely democratic dialogue about the institutionalization of power and the related distribution of income, wealth and participatory opportunity” in these organizations, in order to guard against the return of “hierarchically ordered master-servant relationships.”31

De-Alienation and Nature

Is the Hudis/Marx notion of free human development in post-capitalist society anti-ecological? After all, nature – like the alienated creations of human labor under capitalism – comprises a set of material conditions that shape and constrain human development. It would seem that nature must be alien to human development except insofar as all natural phenomena, including other species, are placed under strict human control and converted into mere factors in the satisfaction of an expanding array of human needs. Such a subsumption of nature under de-alienated human development would presumably start with the absorption of natural conditions into a collectively planned and operated system of industrial production. Any natural limits to this production might then be viewed as temporary barriers to be obliterated in the pursuit of human development.32

Such a conclusion would be wrong. For starters, it ignores the crucial distinction between the alienated exteriority of nature under capitalism versus the exteriority of nature as a fundamental characteristic of the human condition. The latter exteriority only takes on an alienated form in capitalism and other class societies. People are both part of nature (due to their own materiality) and not part of nature (because the conditions for their survival and development lie outside themselves, in nature). Since people find their conditions of existence outside themselves, they are “limited and contingent,” and thus “suffering” creatures.33 Marx, as Hudis notes, does not deny this natural necessity and suffering; nor does he view it as an inherently alienating condition. Rather, he embraces it as a crucial part of what makes us human; he affirms that “humanity is both a ‘natural being’ and ‘a being for himself’.”34 As Hudis says, “Marx denies that nature can be completely subsumed by human subjective activity.” Rather, humanity is itself “an extension and part of nature,” albeit one that has a “capacity for conscious, purposeful activity [that] enables it to create social existence” – hence an ability “to go beyond physical nature in creating an artificial environment.” In other words, Marx “does not project an abstract humanism that ignores natural limits and realities.”35 For Marx, “nature must not be viewed in terms of an exteriority to be annulled.” However much human development “contains the potential of overcoming natural necessity ... this does not mean that nature can ever become an irrelevant or totally subordinate moment in our existence,” for the simple reason that human existence and development are themselves material, sensuous, and contingent – that is, natural – processes.36 Hence, even for the “higher phase of communism,” Marx conceives of “the passing beyond of natural necessity” not in the sense of an overcoming of natural limits per se (including the necessity of human labor), but rather in the socially de-alienating sense that “society would no longer be governed by the need for material production and reproduction.”37

From the communist aesthetic of embracing the irreducibly natural character of human development, it follows that the expanding system of human needs to be satisfied in post-capitalist society will by no means be limited to those served by industrial processing of natural conditions. Rather, a prominent place will be occupied in this system by the need to commune with nature – including other species – both scientifically and aesthetically. This is not simply a voluntarist assertion based on an abstract philosophical conception of the human condition; it is grounded in Marx’s analysis of alienated and de-alienated labor.

As Hudis points out, in Marx’s view capitalism’s alienation of labor is enabled by “the separation of the labourers from the objective conditions of production ... from the land and control over their labour,” whereas communist de-alienation of labor presumes “a free association of producers [which] overcomes the separation between individuals and the conditions of material wealth.”38 Capitalism’s separation of working people from necessary conditions of production causes them to experience the intrinsic exteriority of nature as an alien necessity. With capitalists controlling the material conditions of production, natural forces and objects are converted into means of extracting surplus value. Nature thus encounters workers as an alien power confining them into their position as human means for the creation of monetary values – a situation that “fragment[s] individuals from their natural and subjective capacities.”39 By “ending the separation of the labourers from the objective conditions of production” through a system of collective-democratic user rights and responsibilities toward these conditions, communism converts the exteriority of nature into a condition of free human development.40

At this point, it is necessary to augment Hudis’s discussion a bit. Hudis recognizes that the social separation of workers from objective conditions of production is a precondition for the generalized commodification of production and the conversion of concrete labor into socially necessary labor time (which serves as the substance of value under capitalism). But he does not delve fully into the ecological implications of this abstraction of labor and its abolition under communism.41 There are serious ecological tensions intrinsic to the capitalist valuation of material wealth by abstract labor as represented by money. As social forms, abstract labor and monetary exchange value are homogenous, divisible, mobile, reversible, and quantitatively unlimited. These characteristics contradict the qualitative variety (and ongoing variegation), indivisibility, locational specificity, irreversibility, and quantitative limits typical of natural wealth, including non-human species and ecological life-systems. These tensions, exhibited historically in various forms of environmental crisis, show that generalized commodity exchange and the capitalist abstraction of labor are primary forms of the alienation of workers, and society as a whole, from both nature and labor.42 Indeed, in a very real sense these forms represent the alienation of nature from itself, not only because workers and their labor are themselves natural phenomena, but also insofar as extra-human natural conditions and species are plundered, polluted, and placed on an unsustainable co-evolutionary path with humanity – a path toward biospheric crisis – by the capital accumulation process.43

Communism’s treatment of labor time is much different. Here, the separation of workers from the conditions of production is overcome by “freely associated production relations,” in which workers and communities “organise the manner, form, and content of their activity on the basis of their actual capabilities.” As a result, labor time does not appear as abstract (commodified and monetized) labor time but as the “directly social labor” which accounts for a declining portion of “time as the space for human development.”44 Insofar as labor time is used as an allocative or distributive criterion (and in Marx’s view its significance for both functions diminishes as communism evolves), it is actual labor time that will be referenced – concrete labor in its real material and energetic forms. There is no place here for the anti-ecological features characterizing abstract labor time and monetary exchange values.45

Under communism, labor time is treated as one dimension of the human development that comprises the means and end of production.46 Other dimensions include, of course, guaranteed subsistence for all (including decent housing and health care), expanded education throughout people’s lifetimes, and increased free time. Both extended free time and de-alienated work experiences will offer more opportunities for productive education and for dissemination of ecologically relevant scientific knowledge – alongside the expansion of cultural and care-giving labors in less commercialized and industrialized, and more pro-ecological, forms than under capitalism. Elsewhere I have shown that Marx’s vision of communism is fully consistent with basic features of sustainable economic development forwarded by leading ecological economists, including: (1) the use of common property systems, in which community members and their enterprises share rights and responsibilities regarding the use and stewardship of natural conditions, as an alternative to individual or collective ownership in the sense of unrestricted use and alienability; (2) sustainable development as a co-evolution of the systems of material production, scientific knowledge, environment, and culture in which non-exploitative values toward both nature and people are embedded ever more firmly in socio-economic institutions and in the mindsets of human beings.47

The foregoing ecological Marxist considerations reinforce the utility of the instrumental criterion as an evaluative framework. The instrumental criterion can focus attention on the specific power inequalities and mystifications of economic and people-nature relations that hamper open and unbiased social deliberations on the structure of ecologically relevant decision-making. Conversely, the Marxist conception of alienation can ground such instrumental evaluations in the macro-structural separation of workers and communities vis-à-vis objective conditions and results of production – which can help distinguish the kinds of pro-ecological institutional reforms that will have staying power, in instrumental justice terms, on the system-wide level.48 The usefulness of such a synthetic framework is demonstrated in the following considerations on the Precautionary Principle.

Capitalism and the Precautionary Principle

A reasonable summation of the Precautionary Principle must include four features: 1. The Precautionary Principle Proper, which says that if an action may cause serious harm, there is a case for counteracting measures to ensure that the action does not take place. 2.The Principle of Reverse Onus, under which it is the responsibility of those supporting an action to show that it is not seriously harmful, thereby shifting the burden of proof off those potentially harmed by the action (e.g., the general population and other species occupying the environment). In short, it is safety, rather than potential harm, that needs to be demonstrated. 3. The Principle of Alternatives Assessment, stipulating that no potentially harmful action will be undertaken if there are alternative actions available that safely achieve the same goals as the action proposed. 4. All societal deliberations bearing on the application of features 1 through 3 must be open, informed, and democratic, and must include all affected parties.49

The de-alienation/instrumental justice framework strongly suggests that all four features are needed to implement the Precautionary Principle Proper: feature (1) has no teeth if it is not supported by features (2) through (4). Notice that the absence of feature (4) would directly violate the instrumental justice criterion. Moreover, it is difficult to see how open and inclusive societal deliberations on decision-making structures are consistent with a situation where harmful actions can be undertaken in stealth fashion. Since features (2) and (3) guard against such stealth harm, they abide by the spirit if not the letter of instrumental justice.

It is thus troubling to see that in environmental law and economics, a standard practice is to identify the Precautionary Principle with feature (1) alone. Rather than articulating a socially practical and resonant approach integrating all four features, and then applying it to specific socio-economic alternatives, mainstream debates focus mainly on whether the Precautionary Principle Proper, taken in abstract isolation, is a viable or socially desirable guide to decision-making. These debates often take the form of choices between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ specifications of feature (1). As explained by Noah M. Sachs: “Whereas weak versions of the Precautionary Principle permit the government to regulate risks under conditions of scientific uncertainty, the Strong Precautionary Principle suggests that some precautionary regulation should be a default response to serious risks under conditions of scientific uncertainty.”50 ‘Free market’ opponents of government regulation favor the weak version (or even no version at all) over the strong version, arguing that any attempt to implement the strong principle will stunt innovations in production. They also suggest that the complexities and uncertainties of economic and environmental processes make the strong principle a recipe for paralysis in regulatory policy.51 These arguments are considered below. What is important to emphasize at this point is how the taxonomical isolation of the Precautionary Principle Proper from its practical-social auxiliaries drives the discussion away from a cohesive analysis of relevant decision-making structures which then tend to be taken as ‘given’. In this way, the whole debate is converted into an argument about the best approach to quantitative microeconomic risk assessment in regulatory policy and in court proceedings. Even those favoring application of the strong Precautionary Principle Proper tend to lack a systemic analysis in this respect – so that the auxiliary features are introduced, if at all, in ad hoc fashion.52 This shows how capitalism’s monetary and market forms of valuation, with their tendencies toward subdivision, standardization, and quantification of all elements of material and intellectual wealth, ultimately have the effect (as they resound through the uncritical thought processes of mainstream social scientists) of vitiating the critical potential of socially promising analytical categories.

Another element in the analytical alienation of the Precautionary Principle is its historical de-contextualization in mainstream discussions. References to colloquialisms that capture the thinking behind the Precautionary Principle Proper are not uncommon; but typically no attempt is made to even date these proverbs – some of which are quite longstanding. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” for example, was first stated by Benjamin Franklin in 1736, in connection with the need for protection against fires. “Look before you leap” (initially connected with the marriage decision) was first recorded in a collection of proverbs collected by John Heywood and published in 1546. “Better safe than sorry” apparently made its first appearance in the Irish novelist Samuel Lover’s 1837 book Rory O’More. Some precautionary counsels are even older. The dictum Primum non nocere (“better to do nothing,” or “first do no harm”), while evidently not part of the Hippocratic Oath, is found in a section of the Hippocratic Corpus (third century B.C.) dedicated to epidemics.53 The more general advice to use caution and prudence as practical guides to political action, especially in situations of uncertainty regarding the connection between the common good and individual interests, is very prominent in Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).54

In the typical mainstream analysis, no attempt is made to engage these proverbs as part of the practical intellectual heritage of society, i.e., to investigate their roots in actual socio-economic practices – including common property institutions – of living communities. Very few analyses even mention how, more than half a millennium ago, the Seventh Generation Principle codified precautionary thinking into the constitution of the 6-nation Iroquois confederacy (see the second epigram at the top of the present study). In short, the role of precautionary principles in traditional common property systems that have been and still are used to manage and protect natural resources around the world is simply bypassed.55 Instead, typically, the mainstream narrative quickly turns from the above-mentioned colloquialisms to more ‘practical’ definitions and usages of the Precautionary Principle in recent regulatory and legal proceedings, declarations of international organizations, and technical economic analyses. Indeed, many discussions of the Precautionary Principle Proper simply date its origins to court cases in Germany in the 1970s.56

Historical de-contextualization thus combines with taxonomic isolation, shifting discussions of the Precautionary Principle onto the track of alternative forms of risk assessment. Debates tend to be centered on the best approach to determining the uncertain costs and benefits of different actions (or non-actions) – with much emphasis placed on the practicality or impracticality of probabilistic quantification and comparison, the need to give due weight to possible extreme and irreversible costs in the presence of uncertainty, alternative conceptions of ‘acceptable’ costs and risks, etc.57 Much less attention is paid to the power structures that shape and constrain the roster of feasible alternatives as well as the informational, communicative, and negotiating capacities of different stakeholders. And in a society dominated by market valuation, economic practicality normally dictates that monetary quantification of costs and benefits will rule over policy discussions once the terms are thus limited. In capitalist society, it is the quantitative monetary pay-off that matters, however distorted it may be as a measure of progress toward sustainable human development. Concerns about uncertain and otherwise non-quantifiable costs are routinely brushed aside when decisions and actions are called for (i.e., when there is a significant profit to be made).

This is not to deny that the Precautionary Principle Proper has a presence in government regulation. Even in the most conservative capitalist country, the United States, precautionary thinking is evident in federal health and safety requirements for food, pharmaceuticals, electronics, toys, children’s clothing, and other consumer goods.58 Paradoxically, however, the Principle Proper has been applied most effectively in cases where it is not actually needed, i.e., when there really isn’t very much uncertainty about the likelihood of extreme and widespread harmful effects from lax regulation. This consideration helps explain the many decades it took to implement meaningful regulations on asbestos use and lead paint (and to compensate their victims), or even to put warnings on packs of cigarettes.

When it is a matter of the introduction of major new product-types that reshape our lives while promising large ongoing corporate profits, it is always the fear of holding back ‘innovation’ that wins the day. Indeed, in most such sectoral cases the option of ‘just saying no’ was and is not seriously considered – even when it is apparent that these new product lines carry massive potential harm, with questionable benefits compared to viable alternatives. Consider, for example, the case of the automobilization of US society, with its tens of thousands of people ‘accidentally’ killed and seriously injured every year (disproportionally teenage drivers), not to speak of its poisoning of the air and its contribution to climate change. Can anyone seriously imagine an alternative historical scenario in which this society might have chosen, on precautionary grounds, to outlaw the automobile, and instead promote different forms of public transport (and alternative structures of the built environment more friendly to pedestrian and bicycle travel) and still have remained a society dominated by corporate capital? But the same observation applies to other sectors that, if not as obviously harmful, have still been predictably disastrous for society, the environment and/or human health: the fast food industry, the use of plastics in packaging, e-commerce (with its enormous packaging pollution and fossil fuel use), the unregulated multiplication of gadgets in daily life, the conversion of elementary and high school education into training for corporate-produced standardized tests, and the destabilizing deregulation of finance and accompanying multiplication of new kinds of assets and debts. All these developments emerged without any meaningful societal deliberations on alternatives.

It is time to be frank. The Precautionary Principle Proper, especially with its auxiliary features, represents a communal, collective-democratic perspective that directly challenges the dominance of corporate capital and the market over production and resource use. A meaningfully precautionary regime requires a decision-making structure guided by instrumental justice, with this justice operating as a condition and result of the de-alienation of workers and communities vis-à-vis the objective conditions of production and their own creative activity. There is thus a kernel of truth in the conservative argument that the Precautionary Principle is really – to use Cass Sunstein’s term – a “paralyzing principle” that would hold back productive innovations and make decision-making difficult in the presence of uncertain and complex effects of proposed actions (including substitute actions).59 Properly applied, the principle would substantively complicate if not incapacitate capitalist innovation, production, and other resource-allocation decisions, because it would prevent these decisions from being guided by the more easily quantifiable priorities of monetary profit and exchange values.60 How could it be otherwise, given the tension between the communality of practical-social precautionary behavior on the one hand, and the competition and class-exploitation of capitalist production on the other hand – a tension that is just one form of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction between use value and exchange value, between human development and the accumulation of value, of abstract wealth?

The Precautionary Principle represents the rich developmental possibilities, the qualitative variegation, and the complex contingencies of a sustainable human co-evolution with nature. But for the monetary calculus of competitive capitalist decision-making, the same principle appears as an impediment to the purely quantitative accumulation of exchange value. Hence, for capital, the watchwords are not “better safe than sorry,” but rather “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” “let the devil take the hindmost” and “après nous, le déluge.”61 The outcome of the conflict between these points of view is a matter of class struggle – regardless of the distorted forms in which this struggle appears in the minds of its participants.

None of this makes the ‘free market’ arguments against the Precautionary Principle any less disingenuous. After all, the main reason why the introduction of this principle currently makes decision-making more difficult is that society is still hamstrung with socio-economic power structures and resource-allocation mechanisms appropriate to an earlier stage of human evolution, when class-exploitation, alienation and the market could be plausibly rationalized as requirements for developing the social productive forces latent in human labor and nature. With humanity now past that stage – i.e., with capitalistically developed productive forces now far more destructive (of both nature and humanity) than productive – conservative warnings against the confusion and chaos pursuant to precautionary regulation basically mimic the counsel to stay inside a burning house unless a new home is ready for occupation. We face the paradox that a prudent application of the Precautionary Principle requires a very imprudent and incautious revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the construction of an instrumentally just alternative.

The Precautionary Principle and Eco-Revolution

Capital thus treats the Precautionary Principle as a paralysis principle, a call for non-action, in two distinct, complexly overlapping ways. On the negative side, capital opposes application of the Precautionary Principle to material production insofar as this principle impedes the competitive pursuit of monetary profit. On the positive side, capital applies the principle to the economy’s social relations in a distorted, one-sided way as it urges extreme caution toward any structural change in these relations. The two sides of this dualistic stance share a willful blindness toward class-based inequalities in power and wealth, and a denial of any potential for alternative, collective-democratic, forms of economic decision-making. Capital’s defense of its incautious, unsustainable exploitation of labor and nature in production thus comes cloaked in cautious conservatism toward socio-economic relationships. This is an alienation of the Precautionary Principle itself. Historically, this principle was conceived communally as a guide to prudent action; but it is now interpreted simply as a principle of non-action, and thereby converted into an ideological weapon in the hands of capital. The internal contradiction in this conversion – rejecting precautionary thinking for production while one-sidedly embracing it for changes in decision-making structures – is rooted in its alienated communality.

For eco-revolutionaries fighting for a de-alienated and instrumentally just human development, on the other hand, the Precautionary Principle can be seen as an empowering principle. Here, the application of the principle to production is fully complementary with its application to socio-economic relations. A consistent and effective application of the Precautionary Principle to production requires that relevant decision-making structures be subject to ongoing open and democratic evaluation and alteration. At the same time, the application of the instrumental justice criterion to the socio-economic power structure can itself be interpreted as an application of the Precautionary Principle – one in which the harm being prevented or minimized is alienation, the domination and distortion of human development opportunities by the products of socially organized productive and administrative activities. The dual application of the Precautionary Principle to production and socio-economic relations constitutes a virtuous circle here. The two sides of the application are complementary, convergent aspects of a single material-social process of eco-revolution (de-alienation) that places humanity and nature onto a sustainable co-evolutionary path. As production and its decision-making structures are placed under worker-community oversight, the material and social aspects of precautionary-instrumental behavior merge into a single dynamic of free human development.

In sum, a practical-social application of the Precautionary Principle must recognize the communality implicit in this principle, the alienation of this communality under capitalism, and the need to de-alienate precautionary thinking in and through a process of eco-revolution. This requires that the material and social aspects of the Precautionary Principle be given equal weight, and the introduction of instrumental justice in the Marxist context seems to be helpful in this regard. Marxism provides the needed class-analytical framework, while instrumentalism safeguards against distortions of the Precautionary Principle and other forms of alienated power.

This perspective on the Precautionary Principle highlights the eco-revolutionary importance of a broad diffusion of scientific knowledge among workers and their communities. This includes natural and social sciences, both of which are needed to enhance workers’ collective self-management and administrative capacities. The progressive combination and eventual merger of these two branches of science corresponds to the aforementioned convergence of the productive and organizational applications of the Precautionary Principle. Clearly, this process must be as far as possible one of self-education by workers and communities, which means that education itself has to be organized along instrumental justice lines – i.e., with an ongoing collective-democratic evaluation of educational-administrative structures. The self-education element of eco-revolution begins under capitalism, with worker-community struggles for economic and ecological justice in which the importance of a de-alienation of science and technology becomes increasingly clear. It is through these struggles, including the struggles of indigenous peoples to protect and scientifically reinvigorate traditional communal systems of production, that capitalism’s alienated exteriority of both nature and society vis-à-vis individuals can be progressively overcome.62 Workers and communities will then begin to rationally regulate their interchanges with, and feel at one with, the natural co-evolutionary conditions of their free and sustainable development.

We noted at the outset how the perceived absence of systemic alternatives to capitalism has been working against the development of anti-capitalist revolutions. Peter Hudis’s analysis of alienation and de-alienation in Marx served as a framework for understanding and overcoming this apparent blockage of revolutionary options. It seems appropriate to close with Hudis’s call for new kinds of thinking on communist alternatives, and in particular his warning against attempts to treat Marxist analysis as pure science:

‘Marxism’ has especially suffered from the tendency of many of its adherents to separate the ‘factual’ from the ‘normative’, the real from the ideal, the economic from the philosophical. We must put all this behind us. The history of the past hundred years makes it painfully evident that while the material conditions for the existence of socialism are a necessary condition for freedom, they are by no means sufficient.... I would argue that given the absence of a viable alternative to capitalism, discontent with the many ills of existing society risks falling short of a serious challenge to the system as a whole. In this sense, a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism is not only needed to further develop mass-opposition; it is needed to actually inspire it.63

If the present investigation of the Precautionary Principle advances eco-revolutionary theory in the direction charted by Hudis, even if only by one baby step, it will have served its purpose.


1. “Capitalism’s Burning House: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster,” WIN Magazine, Winter 2009, https://www.warresisters.org/win/win-winter-2009/capitalism%E2%80%99s-burning-house-interview-john-bellamy-foster.

2. Ward Churchill, Struggle for the Land (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993), 451.

3. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012). For the encroachment on planetary limits (and here climate change is only the tip of the iceberg) see Johan Rockström, et. al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, Vol. 461, No. 24, September 2009, 472-75; Will Steffen, et. al., “Planetary Boundaries,” Science, Vol. 347, No. 6223, 2015, 736-46.

4. Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).

5. Steven R. Hickerson, “Instrumental Justice and Social Economics,” Review of Social Economy, Vol. 44, No. 3, December 1986, 268-80; see also Paul Burkett, ““Instrumental Justice and Social Economics: Some Comments from a Marxian Perspective,” Review of Social Economy, Vol. 45, No. 3, December 1987, 313-24.

6. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 42-43; emphasis in original.

7. Ibid., 43.

8. Ibid., 49.

9. Ibid., 135; emphasis in original.

10. Ibid., 75; Hudis quoting Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 93.

11. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (New York: Vintage, 1976), Chapter 25.

12. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 207. Hudis’s interpretation of capitalist alienation as a primary theme in Marx is closely related to the notion of capitalism’s “fundamental contradiction” which was developed in my book Marx and Nature (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), Chapter 12. There, I argued that “the conflict between production for profit and production for human needs, the alienation of the conditions of production vis-à-vis the producers and their communities, and the tension between social production and private appropriation, are all equivalent expressions of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction in Marx’s view” (178). I went on to suggest that “Marx treats accumulation crises as one of many symptoms of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction” (182; emphasis in original). By comparison, Hudis’s interpretation is focused more tightly on the alienation of human activity as the system’s primary contradiction; but this contrasting emphasis does not necessarily reflect a substantive disagreement.

13. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 182; emphasis in original.

14. Ibid., 208.

15. Ibid., 209.

16. Ibid., 208.

17. Ibid., 182.

18. Ibid., 41-42.

19. Ibid., 78; emphases in original. See also Alan Shandro, “Karl Marx as a Conservative Thinker,” Historical Materialism, No. 6, Summer 2000, 21-23.

20. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 80-81; emphases in original.

21. Ibid., 212-13. It is worth quoting Hudis at length on the role of revolutionary theory as pioneered by Marx: “I would argue that Marx was not interested in writing a history of social or economic development as much as detailing the process by which a new, free society is compelled to come into being. If Marx were engaged in historical analysis for the purpose of developing an empirical sociology, he would need to give as much weight to tendencies toward stability and equilibrium as to dissolution and decay. Yet Marx does not do so: his historical analyses are decidedly one-sided, insofar as they emphasize the constraints faced by social formations in the face of changing historical circumstances. He does so because his real object of analysis is not so much the past as the future. In tracing out how various formations undergo dissolution, Marx is elucidating the factors immanent in the present that point to a future state of affairs.” Ibid., 123; emphases in original.

22. Hickerson, “Instrumental Justice” (note 5); Burkett, “Instrumental Justice” (note 5).

23. Hickerson, “Instrumental Justice,” 268-69.

24. Ibid., 269.

25. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 209.

26. Ibid., 213.

27. Hickerson. “Instrumental Justice” (note 5), 275.

28. Ibid., 278.

29. Ibid., 275; emphasis added.

30. Ibid., 277-78.

31. Ibid., 278-79.

32. This is basically the interpretation of Marx’s thinking offered by Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx (London: New Left Books, 1971). For a critique of Schmidt’s interpretation, see Paul Burkett, “Nature in Marx Reconsidered,” Organization & Environment, Vol. 10, No. 2, June 1997, 164-83.

33. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 91.

34. Ibid., 90 (quoting from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 337). For further discussion of this aspect of Marx’s world view, see John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2016), 50-56.

35. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 90.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid., 210; emphasis in original.

38. Ibid., 162, 168.

39. Ibid., 168. Notice that workers may experience nature as an alien, exploitative force even in cases where natural conditions are not owned by the capitalist, but are still freely appropriated as means of competitive profit-driven production. The same goes, of course, for social products, such as science, which are freely appropriated by the capitalist. For a detailed discussion of capitalist free appropriation see Burkett, Marx and Nature, 69-78.

40. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 163.

41. Ibid., 162-70; see Burkett, Marx and Nature, 79-98.

42. On the connections between capitalist alienation, value, and environmental crises, see Burkett, Marx and Nature, Chapters 5 through 10; and John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

43. So much for the myth that classical Marxism has nothing useful to say about the exploitation and liberation of non-human species. We also see here the genius of those Marxist ecologists who want to avoid the ‘dualism’ of Marxist-materialist dialectics (and the fundamental contradiction between capitalism and sustainable human development) by denying that nature exists apart from its production and reproduction by capitalism itself (see the recent writings of Noel Castree, Jason Moore, and Neil Smith). For a useful critique of this latest form of academic product differentiation, see Andreas Malm, “Tracking the Progress of this Storm,” manuscript, March 2016. That even some self-styled Marxists would deny that nature exists apart from capitalism shows the degree to which capitalism has alienated humanity from nature.

44. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 191.

45. See Hudis’s interesting discussion of energy content as a possible metric for comparing the intensities of different labors for distributive purposes in the early phase of communism (Ibid., 197).

46. Ibid., 120-21.

47. Burkett, Marx and Nature, 223-57; “Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development,” Monthly Review, Vol. 57, No. 5, October 2005, 34-62; Marxism and Ecological Economics (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), 301-32.

48. The need for a system-wide perspective on alienation and de-alienation is reinforced insofar as communism can ultimately only take root on the global level. On this point see Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 79, 167.

49. This list reflects common usage among authors and international declarations that support the application of the Precautionary Principle to environmental decisions. See, for example, Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997), 270-71; Peter Montague, “The Precautionary Principle,” Rachel’s Environment and Health News, No. 586, February 18, 1998; United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (reaffirming Stockholm statement of June 1972) (New York: United Nations, June 1992); http://www.unep.org/Documents.multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=78&ArticleID=1163; Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal, January 29, 2000. (New York: United Nations, 2000); Robert Andorno, “The Precautionary Principle: A New Legal Standard for a Technological Age,” Journal of International Biotechnology Law, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2004, 11-19; Marco Martuzzi and Joel A. Tickner, editors, The Precautionary Principle: Protecting Public Health, the Environment and the Future of Our Children. (Copenhagen: World Health Organization, 2004). For the best statement of feature 3 (alternatives assessment), see Mary O’Brien, Making Better Environmental Decisions (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

50. Noah M. Sachs, “Rescuing the Strong Precautionary Principle from Its Critics,” University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2011, August 1, 2011, 1295; emphases in original.

51. Cass R. Sunstein, “The Paralyzing Principle,” Regulation, Winter 2002-2003, 32-37; Paolo F. Ricci, et. al., “Precautionary Uncertainty and Causation in Environmental Decisions,” Environment International, Vol. 29, No. 1, April 2003, 1-19; Gregory N. Mandel and James Thuo Gathii, “Cost-Benefit Analysis Versus the Precautionary Principle,” University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2006, No. 5, September 14, 2006, 1037-1080; Gary Marchant et al., “Impact of the Precautionary Principle on Feeding Current and Future Generations,” CAST (Committee for Agricultural Science and Technology) Issue Paper, No. 52, June 2013; Tracey Brown, “The Precautionary Principle is a Blunt Instrument,” The Guardian, July 9, 2013; https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/jul/09/precautionary-principle-blunt-instrument.

52. Sachs, to his credit, adds to the strong Precautionary Principle Proper the auxiliary stipulation that “the burden of overcoming the presumption in favor of regulation lies with the proponent of the risk-creating activity or product” – basically equivalent to our feature (2). Sachs, “Rescuing the Strong Precautionary Principle” (note 50), 1295.

53. The guideline “first do no harm” is the primary theme in Otis Webb Brawley’s monumental critique of establishment medical practices in the United States. See How We Do Harm (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011).

54. For an attempt to root the Precautionary Principle Proper in the thinking of Aristotle, see Andorno, “The Precautionary Principle” (note 49), 11.

55. “The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations,” prepared by Gerald Murphy, Portland State University (National Public Telecomputing Network, October 2001), http://www.iroquoisdemocracy.pdx.edu/html/greatlaw.html. On common property systems more generally, see Burkett, Marx and Nature, 246-48; “Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development,” 46-47; Marxism and Ecological Economics, 310-19.

56. World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, The Precautionary Principle (Paris: UNESCO, 2005), 9; Andrew Jordan and Timothy O’Riordan, “The Precautionary Principle: A Legal and Policy History,” in Martuzzi and Tickner, eds., The Precautionary Principle, 33. Dating the principle to the 1970s ignores among other things its prominence in the work of Rachel Carson on the need to regulate the introduction of pesticides. See Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); Paul Brooks, The House of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), 305 and passim.

57. Kenneth T. Arrow and Anthony C. Fisher, “Environmental Preservation, Uncertainty, and Irreversibility,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 88, No 2, May 1974; Richard T. Woodward and Richard C. Bishop, “How to Decide When Experts Disagree,” Land Economics, Vol. 72, No. 4, November 1997, 492-507; Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling, Priceless (New York: New Press, 2004), 224-29.

58. For useful examples, see Sachs, “Rescuing the Strong Precautionary Principle” (note 50), 1307-11.

59. Sunstein, “The Paralyzing Principle” (note 51).

60. This is clear from even the simplified hypothetical examples outlined by the studies cited in note 57 above.

61. Montague, “The Precautionary Principle” (note 49); Marx, Capital, Volume I, 381.

62. On the likely development of eco-revolution from an initial democratic phase to an openly eco-communist or eco-socialist phase, see John Bellamy Foster, “Marxism and Ecology,” Great Transition Initiative, October 2015, www.greattransition.org/publication/marxism-and-ecology. On indigenous communities fighting for sustainable communal alternatives to capitalism, and employing advanced scientific knowledge, see David Barkin, “Commentary on ‘Marxism and Ecology’,” Great Transition Initiative, October 2015, http://www.greattransition.org/commentary/david-barkin-marxism-and-ecology-john-bellamy-foster.

63. Hudis, Marx’s Concept, 214-15; emphases in original.