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Civil Society and the Metabolic Relationship Between Human Beings and Nature

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As environmental and ecological crises deepen, there is a growing awareness that the relationship between humans and nature under modern civilization and capitalism needs to be fundamentally reset. At the same time, there is growing reflection and criticism of the anthropocentric and nature-dominated ideas of traditional social sciences. Without exception, Marx is often a target of criticism. In response to this, Marx’s “theory of metabolism” has come under renewed scrutiny, and new studies related to this theory are flourishing. I wonder, however, whether these new studies have not forgotten to learn from Yoshihiko Uchida, for whom the theory of material metabolism was the core of his work. Throughout his life, from his youth when he was searching for an academic theme, to his later years, Yoshihiko Uchida made the “material metabolism of human beings and nature” the basic perspective of his social science. Moreover, his theory of metabolism went beyond the realm of literary research, becoming the fundamental perspective of his perception of society and history, and his theory of civil society was inseparable from the perspective of the “metabolism of human beings and nature.” From this viewpoint, this chapter will first follow Marx’s perception of the human-nature relation from the early-mid period (‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’ and Grundrisse of 1857–1858) to the late period (Capital) to see how he perceived the disturbance of material metabolism under capitalism, and therefore the inevitable reconstruction of metabolism (Sect. 3.2). Based on this, I will show how Uchida, who learned the concept of “metabolism” from Marx, has been using it as his own basic perspective in all directions, in line with his three major research interests of Smith, Marx, and Hajime Kawakami (Sect. 3.3). Finally, the chapter reviews and affirms his concept of “civil society as a rational management system of metabolism between humans and nature” (Sect. 3.4). This is followed by a short conclusion (Sect. 3.5).

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  1. 1.

    For example, already in the early 1960s in the West, Alfred Schmidt of the Frankfurt School wrote Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx (Schmidt 1962). In Japan, in the 1970s, Shigeaki Shiina, in his thematization of the relationship between the agricultural chemist Liebig and Marx, said, “It was his [Marx’s] fundamental standpoint to understand how nature for humans and nature of humans themselves had been, and would be, formed in the history of human beings” (Shiina 1976: 174). More recently, Sasaki (2021: 134) also insists, “It is no exaggeration to say that it [the theory of metabolism] is a fundamental perspective underlying the entirety of Capital.”

  2. 2.

    Some examples: Foster (2000), Iwasa and Sasaki (2016), Saitō (2017), and Sasaki (2021).

  3. 3.

    Unless otherwise noted, all emphasis has been added by the author.

  4. 4.

    Although it is somewhat premature to introduce the following sentence here since it is made in connection with the mid-Marxian Grundrisse, we can understand from it the “socially mediated” nature of metabolism between humans and nature: “He [Marx] defined the labor process as the metabolic relation between humanity and nature. For human beings this metabolism necessarily took a socially mediated form” (Foster 2013: 6).

  5. 5.

    In addition to this, the term “social metabolism” (gesellschaftlicher Stoffwechsel) appears in Grundrisse. For example. “Personal independence founded on objective [sachlicher] dependence is the second great form, in which a system of great social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time” (Marx 1973: 158; cf. Marx 1986: 95). Furthermore, in Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy published in 1859, Marx wrote, “The exchange of commodities is the process in which social metabolism, in other words, the exchange of particular products of private individuals, simultaneously gives rise to define social relations of production, into which individuals enter in the course of this metabolism” (Marx 1987: 292). In this case, metabolism is also translated as “exchange of products,” which refers not to the direct transformation of materials in human-nature relations, but to the transformation of materials in human–human relations (i.e., “social” relations), such as commodity exchange and commodity distribution. It is important to note that behind such exchange of commodities, there is no direct material transformation. However, behind such commodity exchange, there is a kind of trans-historical human activity called “social division of labor,” and as we will see later, Yoshihiko Uchida conceptualizes “social metabolism” as “the metabolism of humans and nature that takes place while organizing the social division of labor,” in a unique way different from Marx’s usage.

  6. 6.

    Cf. “It was Marx and Engels who applied the term ‘metabolism’ to society” (Fischer-Kowalski 1997: 122). “In his definition of the labor process Marx made the concept of metabolism central to his entire system of analysis by rooting his understanding of labor process upon it. Thus in his definition of the labor process in general (as opposed to its historically specific manifestation), Marx utilized the concept of metabolism to describe the human relation to nature through labor” (Foster 2000: 157).

  7. 7.

    One more characteristic of human metabolism mediated by labor is, as pointed out earlier, that metabolism is accompanied by social mediation (social division of labor).

  8. 8.

    As a general rule, all quotations from Yoshihiko Uchida are indicated with the volume and page number from the Collected Works of Yoshihiko Uchida [CW], 10 vols. (Uchida 19881989) alongside the monograph version and its page number.

  9. 9.

    After the publication of the first volume of Capital, Marx further deepened his own perception of material metabolism through the study of Carl Fraas (1810–1875) and others. For more details, see Saitō (2017: Ch. 6) and Sasaki (2021: 145–148).

  10. 10.

    The source for this term is the following passage: “a community of free individuals [Verein freier Menschen, réunion d’hommes libres], carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community” (Marx 1996: 89).

  11. 11.

    To get somewhat ahead of myself, Uchida in his later years described the same thing as “economics as the bottom” or “economics of the bottom.” For example, “Marx, who stands at the entrance to the economics as the bottom with his theory of alienation, reaches the consciousness of economics in the broad sense of the historical form of the division of labor with ‘The German Ideology’ [1845–1846], and eventually completes economics in the narrow sense with his theory of value” (Uchida 1967: 91–92; CW 5: 27). “In this way, he was able to rethink and re-evaluate economics in the broad sense of the word. By setting economics in the broad sense or economy in general at the bottom of economics in both broad and narrow senses, I intend to ask how it operates in a capitalist or socialist system. Thus I should like to re-read realities by and from getting back to economics of the bottom” (Uchida et al. 1967: 230).

  12. 12.

    The date of writing of both notes is not clear, but the editors estimate that the ‘Memorandum’ was written “at a time when the Pacific War [1941–45] was in progress” (Nozawa and Sakai 2002: 493), and the “Lecture Note” was written “at the latest around the start of the Pacific War” (ibid. 495).

  13. 13.

    This point is not fully developed until the later Lectures on the History of Economic Thought (Uchida 1961: 351–360; CW 2: 352–361), and The World of Capital (Uchida 1966: Ch. IV; CW 4: 287–315).

  14. 14.

    In other places also, Uchida reminisces by citing the words in The German Ideology: “‘The French and the English have nevertheless made the first attempts to give the writing of history a materialistic basis by being the first to write histories of civil society, of commerce and industry” [Marx and Engel 1976: 42]. I read it thinking, ‘This is it!’ Thus, without realizing it, the idea of a social metabolic process was cultivated in me. The debate on the theory of technology led me, with such a grounding, to the theoretical depths of understanding the labor process at once” (Uchida 1977: 526–527).

  15. 15.

    Since this text is unsigned, we have to be cautious whether we can consider it as a Uchida reference, and it is not included in the Collected Works of Yoshihiko Uchida (Uchida 19881989). However, in the ‘Author Catalog of Yoshihiko Uchida’, it is counted in Uchida’s works with a note: “this is written after discussion with Kyōji Tazoe” (CW 10: 16). So, in the References at the end of this chapter, it is counted as one of the Uchida references.

  16. 16.

    As is well known, in Uno’s theoretical system, ‘Chapter I: Commodities, Section 1: Two Factors of Commodities: Use Value and Value’ at the beginning of Capital is rearranged as ‘Two Factors of Commodities: Value and Use Value’ to show the logical superiority of value over use value. To use Uno’s own words, “The owner of a commodity regards its value as the active agent of trade that fetches him other desired commodities and conceives of its value as a passive factor which may be of use to others” (Uno 1980: 5). In addition, Uno reorganized the two parts of the beginning of Capital as ‘Part I: The Doctrine of Circulation,’ which is composed of Commodiries, Money and Capital. According to Uchida, this is another proof of the “circulation-biased” fallacy.

  17. 17.

    Later in his life, Uchida made it clear that in the history of economic thought up to the nineteenth century, the concept and perspective of “metabolism” was still unique to Marx, and not to the classics. “It was already unique to Marx to look again at the ordinary fact of the production of use-values and to see a metabolic process unique to human beings. (The narrow-mindedness of classical economy lies, first of all, in its failure to delve deeply into the aspect of the production of use-values as a matter of course. The concept of the metabolic process between human beings and nature was present in Marx but not in classical economy” (Uchida 1981: 262; CW 8: 214–215).

  18. 18.

    See also: “The division of labor is the point of contact between Smith’s theory of productive forces and his theory of value. … There are two points of contention: the notion of the ‘division of labor as the basis of productive forces’ and how the theory of value emerges through the mediation of the theory of division of labor” (Uchida 1953: 218; CW 1: 195).

  19. 19.

    Yoshihiko Uchida also has expressions such as “material metabolism = use value = division of labor perspective” (Uchida 1981: 262; CW 8: 215).

  20. 20.

    See also Uchida’s confession and remarks, “I have come to think of many things I see and hear in my daily life in terms of the social division of labor” (Uchida 1967: 322; CW 5: 266). “Social scientists base their social perceptions on the ‘division of labor’” (Uchida 1974: 309; CW 6: 251).

  21. 21.

    Regarding how Uchida’s “social metabolism” differs in nuance from that of Marx, see footnote 5 above.

  22. 22.

    “A “fully developed individual” does not mean an all-rounded person, but an individual who has the potential to demonstrate his or her abilities in multiple ways, and who “can learn” for its sake. “The individuals who have to cease to be mere partial person, who have to constantly adapt to new circumstances, are also individuals who can learn. Each of these individuals, while inquiring and studying, will totally and rationally fulfill the metabolism between human beings and nature”(Uchida 1971a: 200; CW 4: 171).This leads to Yoshihiko Uchida’s recognition of the significance of “academic inquiry” or “social science as a popular work” in the formation of civil society (see Chapter 2 of this book).

  23. 23.

    Prior to this, Uchida had said in a journal symposium with medical scientist Yoshio Kawakita and others, “In economics, we have focused on society as a whole and considered social metabolism. However, it is the individual who is directly doing the metabolism, and what is called the society … enters the metabolism of the individual. Each person is cured in a way that society is involved into individual – to generalize, the individual is living and ‘growing up.’ In this way, we must consider ‘the place of survive’ by intertwining society and the individual. … Thinking about social metabolism from the perspective of individual metabolism. …” (Kawakita et al. 1982: 34; Uchida 1992: 445–446, revised edition: 344).

  24. 24.

    The same point is made about Marx’s civil society: “Marx’s shimin shakai (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) refers to capitalism as a historical society, as well as to the economic substructure vis-à-vis the superstructure” (Uchida 1961: 334; CW 2: 335).


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Yamada, T. (2022). Civil Society and the Metabolic Relationship Between Human Beings and Nature. In: Civil Society and Social Science in Yoshihiko Uchida. Springer, Singapore.

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