Jean Robert, Production, 1992

The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power


A man and a concept

Don Bartolo lives in a shack behind my house. Like many other “displaced persons” in Mexico, he is a squatter. He constructed his dwelling of cardboard, together with odd pieces of plastic and tin. If he is lucky, he will eventually build walls of brick and cover them with some kind of cement or tin roofing. Stretching behind his hut, there is an expanse of barren unused land. From the owner he got permission to cultivate it, to establish a milpa: a field of corn planted just when the rains start so that a crop can be harvested without irrigation. Bartolo’s action may appear to us profoundly anachronistic.


After World War II, Mexico and the rest of the “Third World” were invaded by the idea of development. According to President Harry Truman – whose inaugural address in 1949 did much to popularize the term – development consists principally in helping “the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens” [1]. The key to development is greater production and “the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of scientific and technical knowledge”. Don Bartolo does not produce more than his father did, nor does he use mechanical power to lighten his burden. Experts say that he is underdeveloped.

Once defined as the application of science and productivity, production gradually came to mean productivity itself – more outputs at less cost. And, according to mainstream Mexican economists today, Bartolo’s behaviour is clearly not productive. But do they have the last word? Perhaps we should take a look at the history of the concept.

Production comes from the Latin verb producere, which meant “to stretch”, “to spend”, “to prolong”, “to draw into visibility”. It generally referred to an actualization of possible existence. In terms of this ancient meaning, production is a movement from the invisible to the visible, an emanation through which something hitherto hidden is brought within the range of man’s senses. This idea of emanation fitted ordinary people’s experience, the awareness that nature, husbanded by man, brings forth a people’s livelihood.

In the European Middle Ages, production retained its ancient sense of emanation. The exceptions are found in the writings of those philosophers who tried to reformulate Christian thought in Aristotelian terms. They sometimes used production as a synonym for creation and, of course, God, not man, was for them the “Producer”. However, most theologians insisted that God’s creation must not be expressed by the same word as the products of nature. In the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa clarified the difference between creation and production further by stating that God created the world out of nothing, while nature only brings forth what God has previously created.

The Renaissance called a man wise if he, like Prometheus, sought to emancipate himself from the bounds of nature and to act following his free will, while the unwise remained “nature’s debtor”. This Promethean mood, however, was still not called productive [2]. Nature, and nature alone, was “the great queen and mother of all production”.

Until the eve of modernity, the term continued to be used primarily in its ancient meanings where it designated an emanation of nature or the bringing forth of something hidden. In that second sense of “making visible”, the term, by the mid-eighteenth century, had acquired the status of a technical term in jurisprudence. For example: “The books must be produced, as we cannot receive parole evidence of their content” (1776, from the Oxford English Dictionary). From the early seventeenth century, however, a change can be noted. The term “production” begins to imply the notion that certain combinations of any two elements can generate a third – something entirely new which is not reducible to its components. For Milton, the outcome of such unions was still evil. In Paradise Lost (1667), for example, he wrote: “These are the Product of those ill-mated Marriages thou saw’st, where good and bad were matcht, who of themselves Abhor to joyn” [3]. And well into the next century, the terms “creation”, “production” and “fabrication” or “manufacture” still had strictly defined domains of application. God was the Creator, nature the producer and man the manufacturer. Though man could sometimes be its subject, the verb “to produce” had not yet become the neutral synonym, “to realize”, that it is today.

The modern sense of production, where man is the producer and the product is a new entity, required a break with the word’s traditional meanings [4]. The first step to that Promethean understanding of production was taken by the writers and philosophers of the Romantic period at the end of the eighteenth century. For them, the artist became the archetype of the producer, since the Romantics ascribed the generative powers of nature to him [5]. Kant in philosophy and Goethe in literature thus coined a new sense of production, which is best exemplified in Kant’s concept of the Einbildungskraft, the power of the imagination. This power is productive not because it conjures up an object’s image in its absence, but because, Kant insisted, it is capable of conceiving the formal characteristics of an object before any empirical perception of it is possible [6]. Kant thought that the morphological description of natural phenomena was an integral part of the productive activity of nature – it was nature acting in the scientist.

Inspired by Kant, Goethe wrote: “Man does not feed himself and enjoy without, at the same time, becoming productive. This is the most inherent property of human nature”. For Goethe, the artist was productive because nature was productive in him: “Nature, who spontaneously produced in me great and small work of her kind, rests sometimes for long periods” [7]. He was attentive to his own ‘productive mood’ as if it were a natural phenomenon and observed the moments of an “accumulation of productive force”. He also devised productive maxims with which he admonished himself, and made lists of production-enhancing “technical details”, like the good effects of solitude, springtime, the early morning, some bodily motions, certain colours and music. His social vision, also, was permeated by “the dichotomy between the productive and consuming classes”, a projection of his interest in the relation between the productive artist and his public.

This was new. In contrast to this Promethean view, Daniel Defoe – not yet the renowned author of Robinson Crusoe but an obscure pamphleteer – still insisted (in 1704) that production belonged to nature’s power, not man’s industry: “When we speak of it [wealth] as the Effect of Nature, ’tis Product or Produce; when as the Effect of Labour, ’tis Manufacture.” In another pamphlet he refers to what we would call the products of a region as its “manufactures” [8]. David Hume also insisted that man could not match nature: “His utmost art and industry can never equal the meanest of nature’s productions, either for beauty or value”.

Of character and the earth

I approached Bartolo’s field one day while he was ploughing. When he reached the end of a furrow, I greeted him. After exchanging the customary formalities, I told him I was writing an article in which I discussed a milpa. I asked him why some neighbours appeared able to plant one while others, seemingly, could not. Is there a name for that quality, I wondered, which some possess and others lack? He was silent for a while, and I felt that he unobtrusively watched me from the corner of his shrewd eye. Then he answered with one of those words which mestizo peasants use every day, but which urban people only meet in Cervantes. He said that the milpa requires enjundia. In his vocabulary, this forgotten word of Latin origin (exunguo I anoint) refers to a man’s constitutional strength and virtue, to qualities with which he was anointed at birth. I understood that being born with enjundia means having a taste for good corn – along with the talent “to produce” it.

Production became an economic concept when it was made into the source of value. The concept of economic production was popularized by the Physiocrats, a group of French philosophers for whom all wealth ultimately stemmed from the earth’s generative powers. In their Tableau Economique they described the three orders which contribute to ‘the annual produce of the land and labour’ (the expression is Adam Smith’s) of any nation: (1) the landed proprietors (owners); (2) the cultivators of the land – the farmers and country labourers; (3) the “artificers, manufacturers and merchants”. This third group they called “the unproductive class”, since it contributed no new value – in terms of this theory – to “the value of the whole annual amount of the rude produce of the land” [9]. The first two groups are the “productive” classes of society, since they do contribute, or produce, new value. In this economic tableau, the earth was clearly the matrix of the nation’s wealth and the state’s power.

Of labour and the earth

Don Bartolo is a rural migrant from the state of Guerrero. He is proud that he can supply his family with the high quality and good taste of the corn they enjoy in their native village. And he wants to eat tortillas que saben, not the insipid substitutes now sold in government-sponsored stores. He also wants to say who he is: a man of qualities, one who knows how to work the land, how to tend a milpa.

The modern concept of economic production turns the Physiocrats’ relationship between earth and industrial labour upside down. The first step towards the primacy of labour over the land was taken by de Condillac, a contemporary. In opposition to the Physiocrats, he wrote:

“Exactly speaking, the farmer doesn’t produce anything; he only enhances the earth’s disposition to produce. On the contrary, the craftsman produces a value, inherent in the forms he gives to the new materials. To produce is, indeed, to give new forms to matter; the earth, when she produces, doesn’t do differently” [10].

With a team of borrowed oxen, Bartolo first ploughs the furrows where he will plant his seed. Observing the signs in the sky since the cabañuelas – the light rains of January – he learns when he has to sow so that his crop will receive sufficient rain while it is growing, and a week of dry weather when the cobs are ripe. When the young plants come up, he gently banks up the earth so that the roots will not be exposed to the sun. At the proper time, he and his family go to work on the limpias, the weeding. Weeding is tiring work and festive celebrations accompany it.

Adam Smith, who was critical of the Physiocrats, pointed out that their system ‘at present exists only in the speculations of a few men of great learning and ingenuity in France’ and developed a counter-argument similar to de Condillac. The wealth of a nation results in the production of necessities (“not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency, have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people”) and luxuries (“all other things … without meaning by this appellation to throw the smallest degree of reproach on the temperate use of them”) [11]. The principal human factor in the creation of wealth seems to be, he said, the division of labour. And, for Smith, labour is either productive or unproductive.

The former comprises workers on the land, in manufacturing and trade. The latter includes “some of the most respectable orders in the society” as well as “some of the most frivolous professions”, reaching from churchmen, lawyers, physicians to buffoons, musicians and opera singers [12]. Smith’s great work, The Wealth of Nations, is important – from the perspective of this essay – for its reversal of the Physiocrats’ concepts and the important place given to labour, and hence its impact on the modern world’s notion of production.

Of use value and exchange value

Like many suburban dwellers, Don Bartolo does his best to maintain something of his traditions under hostile conditions. He grows his milpa on marginal land. He has no monetary expenses, for he selects his seed from the largest kernels of the preceding season and uses little bought-in fertilizer. He relies on his and his family’s labour. If his behaviour were evaluated according to the norms of economic profit, it would be characterized as non-profitable. Mexican economists would tell him that he is much better off hiring himself out on some construction site and buying imported corn in the market with his wages. And experts go on advocating this in spite of the fact that the unemployment of men who have abandoned the milpa is rampant. Today, these experts point out, corn imported from the US grain belt is cheaper than the product of the local milpas because North American grain is produced following the norms of economic productivity. But some Mexicans insist that the milpa obeys another logic, incarnates another kind of life. Further, they know that corn from the milpa has a different taste; it has taste, they say.

The next step was taken by Ricardo. His ideas tended to reduce the earth’s generative powers to merely quantifiable factors – we would say inputs – of productive labour. And he equated welfare and wealth with exchange value. With these ideas, the link between economic production and the old sense of production as emanation was definitively broken. Production could now be understood as a purely human creation – resulting in exchange value and its expression in money – on which everyone would be dependent for survival. The economy is then the dependence of man’s concrete subsistence on abstract value. Subsistence is implicitly redefined as the individual producer’s sociobiological survival under conditions of the accumulation of capital. The commons – formerly contributing to people’s subsistence – could now be destroyed through enclosure in the name of a productive imperative. For the commons are an obstacle to production since they allow people to subsist independent of producing economic value [13].

Looking at the milpa, I imagined a cycle of moving energies, but I was wrong. Energy is quantitatively conserved and dissipated; not so the peasant’s enjundia. This is not conserved, nor is it dissipated. It emanates from a man’s body and, if the weather and other factors are favourable, is re-created by the plant. It does not circulate in a closed system, but is given and taken. Sometimes it is lost, sometimes given back abundantly – con creces. The strength which flows from a man’s body calls for other, natural flows or emanations – the warm caressing of the sun, the showers of rain from the sky, like successive anointings of earth and crop. In the milpa, labour is an act of propitiation, not an input. The exchange is open, each year nature will follow her mood, good weather can only be hoped for, controllable factors are few.

It should be noted that at the time when Ricardo’s ideas led to a view of the earth as a passive input for production (a factor of production), chemists were redefining soil as a compound of minerals, and Liebig, the father of the fertilizer industry, began his experiments with growing plants in a soil-less chemical preparation. Moreover, there is a conceptual similarity between Ricardo’s disregard of the earth’s productive powers and the substitution of a chemical theory of agriculture for the ancient notion of the earth as the stomach, the nurturer, of growing organisms. Agriculture’s “need” for fertilizer inputs can be seen as an ultimate consequence of Ricardian economics. Then, as labour also became an increasingly abstract concept – just another input like fertilizer or irrigation, but simultaneously the secret of all the other inputs’ value – economics came to disengage itself from a consideration of actual local production procedures. The major problem of economics was no longer the material production of goods, but their distribution – as the condition for the realization of their exchange value.

Of theory and memory

Don Bartolo has little understanding of or interest in economic theory. Near his shack, he has built a troja, a small corncrib of clay, straw and palm branches in which he stores his corn during the dry season. Each day his wife, daughters and daughters-in-law can take what is needed for the tortillas and – on feast days – for the pozole, the lamales or the tlaxcales. Bartolo is motivated by memories of good, simple meals and family traditions. Cost-benefit analysis and economic profit are completely alien considerations for him.

For Marx, production was a two-faced Janus. In a narrow economic sense, he built on Smith and Ricardo, making labour into a kind of paradigm for production, the source of all value. But his originality consists in the way in which he embraced the philosophical and Romantic meanings of production and turned them into the hub of his theory of history. To do this, he took up production in its ancient meaning of “bringing forth”, of “actualizing a hitherto only potential shape”. In this way production came to be the fundamental concept and hinge in his work. As Hentschel notes, Marx “saw production as the shape-giving force of History and, ultimately, as the fulcrum for the necessary and unavoidable transformation of the world” [14]. The term assumed a reflexive overtone when, in harsh opposition to Hegel’s idealism, he wrote: “Men start to distinguish themselves from the animals as soon as they begin to produce the material conditions of their living”, when “they indirectly produce their material life itself” [15].

But I want to emphasize another, less known aspect of Marx’s thinking about production: its relationship to his ideas on the origin of exchange value. Marx was a witness to the first railroads and wrote the initial sketch of Capital (Grundrisse) during the decade of railroad mania in Europe. He said:

“This locational movement – the bringing of the product to the market, which is the necessary condition for its circulation, except when the point of production is itself a market – could more precisely be regarded as the transformation of the product into a commodity.” [16]

This is one of Marx’s most powerful insights into the nature of commodities and their production. Defined technically, economic production is the chain of transfers and transformations which take place between the moment when given substances or goods are uprooted from a region and when they are offered on the market somewhere else. But the historical emergence of commodities does not require the whole chain of industrial transformations, but only the uprooting, since uprooted local goods were already commodities even before they were produced by industrial methods. It is important to see the effect of the movement itself:

“With the spatial distance that the product covers on its way from its place of production to the market, it also loses its local identity, its spatial presence. Its concretely sensual properties, which are experienced at the place of production as a result of the labour process (or, as in the case of the fruits of the land, as a result of natural growth) appear quite different in the distant marketplace. There the product, now a commodity, realizes its economic value, and simultaneously gains new qualities as an object of consumption.” [17]

Of goods and movement

The milpa has high use value, modern production high exchange value. Working in the milpa, needs are shaped by the activities which satisfy them – one cannot speak of distinguishing production from consumption. Modern production, on the other hand, separates needs from satisfaction and clearly creates two spheres, one of production and the other of consumption. The milpa, unless carried out on a large scale, contributes little to economic indicators, wages and employment. However, production, by definition, increases the GNP as well as other economic indicators.

The perception of goods – and, a fortiori, subsistence goods – as commodities has a history. From the point of view of the history of this perception, “commodity” is the form of uprooted goods. To have understood this is one of Marx’s more brilliant – and less acclaimed – insights. In order to document the historical appearance of the commodity form of goods, he allowed the ancient sense of emanation to complement the modern narrow economic meaning of production. By uprooting all goods, transportation literally actualizes the commodity form into their substance.

But what does this mean? Marx rejects both Platonism and Hegelian idealism. Forms or ideas have no existence independent of the act that “actualizes” them. Hence the commodity form of goods is given to them precisely in the movement which uproots them, bringing them to market. And the possibility of that movement makes all goods potential commodities, with transportation being the realization of that form. Commodities do not require transportation because their site of production is distant from the place where they are consumed. Rather, we first separate a sphere of production from a sphere of consumption because we perceive all goods as commodities. Transportation is not, in the first place, a material or locational necessity, but a hidden axiom of our representation of goods. It is not a “need”, but a requirement for the social construction of a commodity-intensive productive order. It is this order which then transforms uprooted goods – commodities – into everybody’s needs.

Of progress and history

Economists tend to define the milpa by what it lacks. The labour involved is characterized as a subsistence activity – hard work with inefficient tools to generate only a few goods; that is, little or no surplus. Subsistence production is seen by them as the poor relation of modern economic production. They define subsistence as a situation of endemic scarcity, not realizing that they thereby project the foundational axiom of Western economics – scarcity – onto a setting which obeys a non- or pre-economic logic. The milpa is a historical activity rooted in millennial traditions. An economist’s certainties can only enter this world at great risk. They can colonize the past, thus distorting it, and falsify the present, thus not understanding it.

In Capital (ch. 7), Marx showed that violence is a historical precondition for the establishment of production relations in which accumulation can be realized “peacefully” by the play of economic laws. He saw that the historical violence which he calls “original accumulation” is also an uprooting of people from their place, their customs, their identity. But because he believed in progress, he was convinced that the productive forces unleashed by that very uprooting would ultimately bring about a more human world in which “everyone will receive according to his needs”.

In the scenario of original accumulation, traditional forms of domination and physical violence characteristically exploit and uproot people. In Marx’s dialectic this original overt violence brings on the development of productive forces. And a belief in progress prevents the adherent of this idea from raising questions about the possibly irreversible losses inherent in such a development. Class struggle is thus seen as a contest for a pie whose goodness is beyond doubt.

Of gifts and service

My conversations with Don Bartolo led me to elaborate some tentative characteristics to distinguish his behaviour from what economists today call production. The milpa worker’s view of the weather – with his corresponding behaviour – acknowledges and accepts the world’s essentially contingent nature – in some sense, everything rests in God’s hands. Modern economics, on the other hand, attempts to identify, isolate and control all “the productive factors”. The milpa farmer hopes; the modern producer has quantitative expectations of profit. Bartolo growing corn is part of a natural drama; the producer is mentally outside nature, attempting to manage her. The milpa is giving and receiving; modern production matches benefits against costs. The milpa’s gifts are both concrete and multiple – immediately sensible to the taste, socially joyful in the festivals it elicits. The single abstract value, money, overshadows all other evaluations of production. The economic “pie” has no taste, only a quantifiable value.

It is the goodness of that pie which is now in question. Marx’s schema, by its very construction, prohibits assessment of any destructiveness possibly inherent in economic production. Today, awakening from four decades of development dreams, we are forced to confront the credibility of the association of production with happiness or welfare. For we can now see the worldwide dislocation, suffering and alienation resulting from these dreams or delusions. We are the witnesses of a war, a war against subsistence embedded in specific cultures, a war against nature itself.

This war became obvious only some decades after World War II. The experience of wartime production revealed unsuspected possibilities for increasing productivity. A whole bevy of experts united in “interdisciplinary” efforts to explore the potential for increases in efficiency. Alongside these endeavours there was an explosive growth in wholly new areas of production in ever more “imaginative” and differentiated services, in the very actions which Adam Smith had explicitly characterized as unproductive. And it seemed that there were no limits to the variety and extension of services which professionals could devise and promote. Government, business, the people themselves were all convinced that these ministrations, vanities and pleasures were so worthwhile that it was necessary to institutionalize their production, so that people could pay for them. These newly proliferating forms of production – of “services” rather than material goods – then became the most important growth sectors of the economy, the ones that most contributed to the gross national product.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the idea that a small set of numbers could express which nations were well off and which were lagging behind had led some economists to estimate the income of a nation as if it were a single household. Before the First World War, only nine countries were reported to have attempted such an evaluation, and, since there was no consensus about the relevant criteria, these first national income estimates hardly allowed for comparisons. It was Keynes who, in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), first suggested that a country’s total expenditures on final products – goods and services ready for consumption – could be the measure of its “national product”. Three years later the League of Nations was already producing estimates of the national product of twenty-six countries.

My neighbour’s milpa does not contribute to Mexico’s GNP. In order to include it, economists would have to imagine a fictitious market situation in which Don Bartolo sells his corn at the low autumn price – when Mexican corn is abundant – and then buys it again from his own granary at the going price during the dry season. But officials prefer to devise policies which really do force peasants to sell their corn cheap after the harvest and then buy imported corn from the government’s supplies later in the year. And both these operations then appear in the GNP. When such policies do not drive peasants off the land – as probably will happen with Don Bartolo – Mexican corn looks more “productive” in the GNP when it is sold as gourmet food abroad than when eaten locally by the people.

Comparative national income accounting systems developed during the Second World War and spread rapidly afterwards. In 1947, an International Association for Research in Income and Wealth was founded, and by 1953 the Association had devised a uniform System of National Accounts and Supporting Tables (SNA), which became the standard procedure for the calculation of the GNP – a nation’s annual output of goods and services valued at current market prices [18].

This concept of GNP expresses the belief that the world is one big marketplace in which nations compete for rank and economic respectability. Considered as a norm of behaviour, productivity has become the new anthropological condition of each person’s legitimacy. The GNP expands that condition to become a nationwide scale. Thanks to the magic of numbers, experts can now view even the global economy as a game in which a country’s GNP is its score.

Of light and shadow

Don Bartolo, who produces high-quality maize for his own family, is, indeed, an anachronism. Economists say that a subsistence mode of living is long dead. I am fascinated by my neighbour; he forces me to ask questions. I see that his milpa, from seed to table, entails the alternation of masculine and feminine domains, the intertwining of hard labour and festive celebration, the mysterious intermingling of husbandry and nature – all these complementarities essentially belonging one to another. Their existence and complexity place the “production” of corn within a cosmology where nature is not reduced to resources but respected in its autonomy. And, as every sky in every place is a different sky, so each milpa calls for a different care, its proper propitiation. No single perspective can be true to the diversity of forms through which nature is induced to bring forth her fruits. Is economics, then, an impoverishment?

Eventually, during this same period – the post-war era – shadows began to appear on the balance sheets. In the production of goods and services, unexpected side effects began to dampen the universal optimism. People saw that the productive processes themselves polluted the environment. Further, institutionalized help and concern appeared to make clients more needy, more dependent. Then the experts redefined these effects as “costs” and, when they were not too conspicuous, tried to hide or internalize them. Alternatively, they could be exported to the countries of innocent third parties (like the dumping of toxic waste in the Third World) or included in the price of the product or service.

But the growth of the service sector of the economy manifested a different kind of negative effect that cannot be reduced either to “pollution” or to an ‘external cost’. It became increasingly evident that the very institutions which provided the major services of industrial societies – health, education, transportation and so on – were inherently counterproductive, no matter how modern and up-to-date they were. That is, they tended to achieve the very opposite of the goals for which they were designed. Everybody could experience that, besides producing new social polarizations, schools also rendered their clients stupid; medicine made doctors rich and prestigious, but also generated new varieties and incidences of sickness; transportation not only built freeways, but also piled up horrendous traffic jams and a mounting toll of accidents.

As this counterproductivity spread throughout the productive sectors of society, the suspicion arose that the primary product of the economy – in the philosophical sense of “prior” – is actually waste. Perhaps the modern economy is essentially a way of organizing reality in a way that actually transforms both nature and people into waste. For modern production to function, the economy must first establish a system in which people become dependent upon goods and services produced for them; and to do this, it must devalue historically determined patterns of subsisting and corrupt cultural webs of meaning. The mass production of modern goods, services and images demands cultural blight through the spread of disvalue – that is, the systematic devaluation of the goods found in traditional cultures.

Disvalue, to the extent that the economy is productive, entails a degradation which touches everything and everyone affected by or involved with this modern mode of organizing reality. A person is less a person, the more he or she is immersed in the economy. And less a friend. Less a participant in leisure – that is, in culture. The air is less pure, the wild places fewer, the soil less rich, the water less sparkling.

Of women and the east

Mexican women know many ways to prepare meals with corn. In October, some cobs are picked while they are still tender, boiled in water and eaten on a wooden stick; these are called elotes. The other cobs are left on the stalk to ripen fully, letting the sun dry out the kernels. They are then picked, shelled and put in a mixture of lime and water to soak. Corn softened overnight in this way constitutes what is called nixtamal. Ground up in a metate – a flat stone with a shallow concave hollow, used as a mortar – the nixtamal becomes masa – a heavy paste, from which tortillas are made. But mature dry corn can also be ground up into a fine powder, which mixed with water becomes atole, the most popular Mexican drink – known in the southern states as pozol. In the North, pozole is a soup made from corn kernels boiled all day. All these operations take place in the feminine domain of the patio, between the outdoor kitchen and the milpa. The tamales, tlaxcales and chalupas sold on Mexican streets by women who are independent pavement traders are the results of still other ways to prepare corn. What wheat and bread are to Europeans, corn and tortillas are to Mexicans – necessary ingredients of all meals.

For some people today, the most evident signs of the character of modern productivity are found in actual and potential eco-catastrophes. A theoretical perspective on these phenomena has been provided by a group of Japanese scientists. The late Professor Tamanoy and his colleagues at the Japanese Entropy Society have suggested that the degradation of natural substances into waste is to industrial production what the flow of heat from higher to lower temperatures is in Carnot’s model of the steam engine. The Frenchman Carnot, around 1830, attempted to describe the economy of heat flow in a steam engine. He showed that, as water naturally runs from a higher to a lower place – thus making a water mill turn, so heat, which he conceived as a substance, the calorique, will only flow from a hotter to a cooler “place”, thus making a steam engine run. The Japanese argue that, not unlike Carnot’s engine, modern economic production requires a kind of irreversible downhill motion in order to run. This is true since, on the whole, industrially processed material can only flow from the state of a valuable resource to a state of waste. Water which has passed through a millrace can only be pumped back to its source through an expenditure of energy, and industrial waste can only be recycled at the cost of more waste somewhere else [19].

The balance sheet of economic production can only appear to be positive so long as islands of production are immersed in large spaces which can absorb their waste without visible cost. But the current generalization and intensification of production worldwide makes these spaces ever more scarce. This means that the West’s market economies seemed to produce goods more valuable than waste when they were ‘lost’ in a world of non-market subsistence which could absorb the waste and supply the West with cheap inputs. If economic production were generalized so that everyone’s subsistence depended on the market, the balance sheet would be negative. The current economic and ecological crises reveal that there are limits. Economic production cannot grow forever without disrupting and destroying livelihoods and the biosphere. The Japanese scholars referred to above insist that the limits have already been passed, and that to regain some balance economic production must be reduced worldwide.

Tamanoy’s explanation of the inherent destructiveness of economic production may appear awkward because he took entropy, a concept from thermodynamics, to be the sign of inevitable waste. High entropy means low quality and low entropy the opposite. Carnot’s image of a mill powered by a downhill flow of water becomes industrial production fed by a general flow of energy and matter from a state of low to one of high entropy. As economic production expands, nature is less able to cope with the high entropy. It is not simply waste, therefore, but the necessary embodiment of a principle of destruction which feeds economic production and causes its ultimate nemesis.

Tamanoy and his colleagues show that economic production can be described in two completely different ways. On the screen of economic science, production is a generation of value, essentially an abstract concept materialized on paper. Economists are interested in the formation of value under the assumption of scarcity, not in the sociogenesis of scarcity. In contrast to this, Tamanoy attempts to get at the very origins of scarcity. He does so by comparing the economic tableau of value production with another tableau where the economy is seen to “produce” the very opposite of a value, a disvalue. Seen through the eyes of the natural scientist, economic production is an increase in entropy, and this entropy – as a depletion of nature – is the ultimate symbol of scarcity.

Of nature and history

The milpa and economic production are not situated on the same continuum, ranging from small to large. The beauty of the milpa is not to be sought in its size. And yet there is something in it which draws me, which attracts me. Don Bartolo’s milpa, probably disappearing next year because of encroaching urbanization, may be one man’s lonely protest against the consumption of tasteless, imported food which is a staple in his diet. Or his milpa may be a poor man’s construction of a living symbol for a remembered way of life, the annual source of his renewed enjundia, the restoration of what is most vital in his being as a historical man. What his milpa most certainly is not is a field for the abstract action of producing a commodity called food. In the end it is perhaps simply Bartolo’s quixotic attempt to make sense of the crazy world in which he has had to grow up.

For four decades, development has been the central concept mediating relationships between the industrialized North and the South. Production was the operational concept of this relationship. By becoming economically productive, the South would develop, indeed would be transformed. The development era sustained itself with the belief that economic growth generated in the North could help the South to be better off. Further, southern elites enthusiastically embraced the idea of production, since it still retained some of its romantic connotations. When an African or Latin American leader spoke of the development of his country’s productive forces, he imagined the realization of its destiny, its emergence as an actor on the world scene.

We now know, however, that it is necessary to look at both production and its shadow, disvalue. Industrial production requires, it seems, as its necessary condition, a principle of irreversible degradation. But this principle is not the outcome of some inexorable law of nature but, rather, of historically identifiable processes. These processes are the progressive denial of traditions favouring subsistence, denial of the human condition as culturally determined. Disvalue, which makes industrial production possible, is also the historical root of the modern ecological catastrophes.


Jean Robert, a Swiss architect who migrated to Mexico in 1972, researches and writes on the history of modern consciousness, the social construction of energy and its impact on the perception of time and space. Apart from his research, he has been involved in designing and constructing flush-less toilets.


Further reading

The story of the concept of production may be summed up as a progressive transition from a sense of emanation or actualization to the Promethean meaning of man-made creation which it acquired in modern times. F. Kaulbach, “Produktion, Produktivität”, in Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Gründer (eds), Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, vol. 7, Basel: Schwabe, 1989, pp. 1417 ff., gives a fresco-like picture of that transition from antiquity to modernity; insists that the modern economic meaning of the term builds, since the late eighteenth century, on an already – but recently – constituted Promethean meaning. Volker Hentschel, “Produktion, Produktivität”, in Otto Brunner et al. (eds), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 5, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1984, pp. 1-26, divides the history of the concept into a “pre-theoretical” and a “theoretical” era, and stresses the importance of a previously constituted juridical meaning for the emergence of the term as a technical one in economics.

For the progressive translation of “production” into a technical term of economic parlance, the following authors’ contributions constitute decisive steps: François Quesnay, Analyse du Tableau, Paris, 1766, establishes the term’s economic meaning, but still reserves it for the works of nature: land and labour on the land are for him the sources of production. E.B. de Condillac, “Le Commerce et le Gouvernement”, Œuvres Complètes, Paris, 1921-22, vol. 4, p. 59, is apparently the first author to put the work of a craftsman on a footing of equality with nature’s production. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, London, 1776, Book 5, ch. II and Book 4, ch. IX, where he criticizes Quesnay and the Physiocrats, and makes “labour” the source of production. David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, London, 1817, disengages “production” from the consideration of concrete activities, a step that can be compared with Liebig’s theory of agriculture, in which chemicals, and no longer the actual earth, nurture the plants. For a collection of early economic pamphlets, including Defoe’s, see J.R. McCulloch (ed.), Select Collection of Scarce and Valuable Economical Tracts, London, 1859.

H. Immler, Natur in der okonomischen Theorie, Opladen: Kiepenheuer, 1985, points out how, in the perception of “classical economists, nature has been submerged by human labour power as the primary source of value”. J. Burkhardt, “Das Verhaltensleitbild ʻProduktivitätʼ und seine historisch-anthropologischen Voraussetzungen”, Saeculum 25, 1974, pp. 277–305, emphasizes that ‘productive’ could become a dominant value only after man was thought to be capable of continuously increasing more wealth through time. W. Schivelbusch, The Railroad Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980, builds on Marx’s insight that it is transportation which transforms goods into commodities, illustrating the part played by the railroad.

H. W. Arndt, The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth: A Study in Contemporary Thought, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, traces the emergence of “growth”, as a policy objective, while The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edn, London, 1986, vol. 20, p. 207, gives a concise history of the concept “gross national product”, showing the steps by which the competitive comparison between nations helped generalize the concept of production. S. Gudeman, Economics as Culture: Models and Metaphors of Livelihood, London: Routledge, 1986, illustrates how different cosmologies shape the meaning of production; and D. Groh, “How Subsistence Economics Work”, Development 3, 1986, describes the rationale for the so-called underproductivity of pre-modern economies. For a powerful historical treatise on the meaning of work in Western thought, see H. Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis, New York: Random House, 1976, launched a new reflection on the structural counterproductivity of service-producing agencies and illustrated it with the modern spread of “iatrogenesis”, the phenomenon whereby the health institutions produce ill health. Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Jean Robert, in La Trahison de l’opulence, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1976, build on Illich’s distinction between clinical and symbolic (or paradoxical) counterproductivity and test that conceptual distinction in several realms of the modern service industries, in particular transportation. Another version of counterproductivity can be found in F. Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth, London: Routledge, 1978. The concept of disvalue was also introduced by Ivan Illich, “Disvalue and the Social Creation of Waste”, conference paper, Tokyo: Meji University, as an answer to Yoshiro Tamanoi, Atsushi Tsuchida and Takeski Murota, “Towards an Entropic Theory of Economy and Ecology”, Economie appliquée, vol. 37, no. 2, 1984, p. 279.


The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power,
Wolfgang Sachs éd., Zed Books, 1992.
2nd edition, 2010.


[1] Harry S. Truman, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1949, in Documents on American Foreign Relations, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967, pp. 103, 104.

[2] F. Kaulbach, “Produktion, Produktivität”, in Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Grunder, Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, vol. 7, Basle: Schwabe, 1989, pp. 1419 ff.

[3] “And by imprudence mixt, Produce prodigious Births of bodie or mind. Such were these Giants, men of high renown”. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XI, pp. 680-85.

[4] See Volker Hentschel, “Produktion, Produktivität”, in Otto Brunner et al. (eds), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 5, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1984, S. 1-26.

[5] Productivity was for them a force of nature which existed independent of man and could embody itself in the genius. See Kaulbach, “Produktion, Produktivität”.

[6] See ibidem, p. 1421.

[7] J.W. Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, IV, 16 (WA 1, 29, p. 16; Inselausgabe, p. 487).

[8] Daniel Defoe, Giving Alms No Charity, and Employing the Poor: A Grievance to the Nation, Being an Essay Upon this Great Question, London, 1704; reprinted in J.R. McCulloch, ed., Select Collection of Scarce and Valuable Economical Tracts, London, 1989; the book also contains Townsend’s “Dissertation on the Poor Laws” and Burke’s “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity”.

[9] See F. Quesnay, Analyse du Tableau, Paris: 1766. For a critique of the Physiocrats by Adam Smith, see The Wealth of Nations, London, 1776, Book 4, ch. IX.

[10] E.B. de Condillac, “Le Commerce et le Gouvernement”, in Œuvres Complètes, vol. 4, Paris, 1921-22, p. 59.

[11] Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 5, ch. II.

[12] Ibidem, Book 2, ch. III.

[13] David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, London, 1817, ch. 1.

[14] Hentschel, “Produktion, Produktivität”, p. 17.

[15] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie (1845-46), MEW, vol. 3 (1958), p. 21.

[16] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1844), London, 1973, p. 534.

[17] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railroad Journey: Trains and Travel in the 19th Century, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980, p. 46.

[18] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edn, London: 1986, vol. 20, p. 207.

[19] Yoshiro Tamanoy, Atsushi Tsuchida Takeshi Murota, “Towards an Entropy Theory of Economy and Ecology”, Economie appliquée, vol. 37, no. 2, 1984, p. 279.

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