Monday, March 6, 2017

The Four Cheaps

On October 21, 2011, the Guardian published an article by Camilo Ruz entitled "The six natural resources most drained by our 7 billion people." The photograph accompanying the headline was a young, poor Nicaraguan woman hauling water from a public well.



Two weeks ago, I had the honor of visiting Duke University at the invitation of Dr. Amy Laura Hall, a Professor of Christian Ethics with the Divinity School faculty. During one of her classes, the subject of the "Anthropocene" era surfaced. I had been doing research for a book on money as an ecological phenomenon, based on the theses of Professor of Human Ecology Alf Hornborg at Lund University in Sweden; and in the course of that study, Hornborg cited another teacher, Dr. Jason W. Moore, a geographer teaching sociology at Binghamton University in New York. Dr. Moore wrote a book called Capitalism in the Web of Life, published by Verso, in which he criticizes the term "Anthropocene" as an ideological construct.

The Anthropocene is an ever more popular term for our current geological era, assigned at the end of a table that includes those eras geologists, paleontologists, archeologists and such use to measure Big Time: Precambrian, Mesozoic, Cenozoic, then subdivided into, e.g., Cenozoic-Paleogene, Cenozoic-Neogene, and so it goes. "Anthropocene" is meant to emphasize how the outgrowth of Humanity, and with it "our" profound impact on the environment, has fundamentally transformed Nature.

Moore objects to this term based on a criticism both he and Hornborg share with regard to the fundamental approach to these sciences. They both object to the way Cartesian dualism has colonized modern thought. That dualism constructs a kind of metaphysical wall between Subject and Object, and by extension, between Man (and it was meant in a gendered way when this dualism was generated) and Nature. In fact, insists Moore, this dualism serves as a kind of subterranean ideology that supports a narrative of power, the power of Man (gendered and generic) over Nature, that ignores the fact that human beings and nature are part of the same monist reality, or as Illich says: "The subject dwells in the object, and the object dwells in the subject." This is more consequential than it may at first seem, in particular at inoculating particular social systems--like capitalism--from critical intervention. Calling our period the Anthropocene (the human era) gives the appearance that things like climate change, ocean acidification, topsoil loss, and aquifer depletion are caused generically (and by implication, "naturally") by the species Homo sapiens sapiens, even though there are wildly divergent levels of "resource consumption" between members of this species worldwide.

Moore prefers the term "Capitalocene," because the most dramatic and dangerous changes in the total reality that encompasses social organization and nature, which Moore names using the Greek oikeios from which "economy" is derived, have occurred in response to the emergence of capitalism as a world system.

The oikeios is a multi-layered dialectic, comprising flora and fauna, but also our planet’s manifold geological and biospheric configurations, cycles, and movements.(…) From the perspective of the oikeios, civilizations do not “interact” with nature as resource (or garbage can); they develop through nature-as-matrix.

Before we go a step further, we will clarify what we mean by capitalism, the expressions of which have changed substantially over the last few centuries. We will begin with the term "capital," which here means a set of social relations that are mediated by the monetary market and circumscribed by the institution of private property. Capitalization, then, would mean pulling anything into that set of market-mediated social relations. For Moore, given that social and "natural" phenomena are inextricable, we can rightfully claim that capitalization also pulls "nature" into market-mediated relations, where nature-culture, or oikeios, are exploited for the purpose of sustaining and expanding capitalization. Any society where capitalization has become the predominant preoccupation of the state, apart from war, can rightly be called capital-ist. The purpose of capitalists is to accumulate wealth, which is accumulated primarily as money. The system of capitalism is a system designed to sustain accumulation, which is accomplished through increased return on investment. When the capitalist class--those who have accumulated sufficient monetary wealth by controlling production and finance to exercise hegemonic political power--encounters roadblocks to accumulation (which we'll discuss below), they are forced to make changes to "re-start" accumulation. When they can no longer re-start accumulation, capitalism will falter and perish.

In the most vulgar of Marxisms, which are themselves irredeemably Cartesian, capital accumulation is accomplished through the exploitation of labor, specifically via the appropriation of surplus value in the process of production. While this surplus appropriation is demonstrable--why else would a factory leave St. Louis to relocate in China--this does not tell the whole story. The laborer eats, the food is grown on land. The machinery is made from materials that are harvested and mined. The waste-output is dumped into the soil, water, and-or atmosphere, etc.

This system is not the inevitable outcome of biological evolution, but an outcome of historical processes that are not decipherable through, for example, genetic science (though Universal Darwinist crackpots like Dawkins may claim such). And so, calling this era the Anthropocene functions in the same way as the Ruz article in the Guardian, that said 7 billion of "us" are using up key "natural resources" (cogitate on both those words for a moment); it conceals the historical character of our era, effacing power, and immunizes capitalism from any critique.

In these dark days, when the government has been infiltrated by demagogues who deny scientific findings with regard to the environment, climate change chief among them, those who use terms like Anthropocene seem positively enlightened. At least they are not denying that the problems exist. And in the context of this political struggle for the hearts and minds of people, framed as it is as between climate change believers and deniers, those of us who are picking a fight with the Anthropocene can come off as nit-picking, self-righteous sectarians.

The problem is, in the larger context of things where both sides of this singular and critical argument are still committed to capitalism in some form or another, the organs of mass communication and mass conformity--conservative through liberal--are owned and operated by the very people who have the greatest stake in capitalism. Their ability to choose how a debate is framed, to select which arguments are heard on what is allegedly "both sides" of an issue (there are only two sides, after all, and reasonable people always sit halfway between them), is an exercise of power on behalf of the very social organization that has created and sustains our trajectory toward a series of catastrophic crises. Language carries meaning; and when you choose the language, when you can choose it and indoctrinate people with it, this is a crucial exercise of power. You are implanting one meaning that forecloses others. This gives mass media the capacity to convince most of us simultaneously that climate change is real--we are in the Anthropocene era--and that higher numbers on the New York Stock Exchange are indicative of "economic health."

A corresponding problem is that woman getting water from the well in the Guardian article. The problem, you see, is population. There are too many of "us," in the Anthropocene, and this too-many narrative has traditionally been accompanied by the suggestion that the "too many" part is not "us" at all, but "them": those brown, highly-fecund types who are having too many (sub-standard) babies. Buried in the talk of the Anthropocene is that old imperial narrative, pregnant--if you'll forgive a paradoxical pun--with eugenics and the cancerous metastasis in poor nations of "helpful" NGOs and bright-eyed missionaries . . . what Illich called the sales force for "a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven't the possibility of profiting from these."

No possibility!? But wait! Of course, these poor people can be "brought up" to our superior standard of living! This ignores the harsh fact that the way of life in the United States and other "industrialization-benefiting" nations exist not alongside these peripheral seas of poverty, but parasitically upon them. "Development" is the Big Lie, the claim that differences across space--between rich and poor NOW-- are differences in time--between the modern and the "backward." And yet anyone who has done even a cursory analysis of what it actually takes--materially requires--to sustain these industrialization-benefiting" cores knows that for the rest of the world to live likewise we would need three earths worth of minerals, four earths of arable land, and two and a half earths or atmosphere to absorb our emissions. Development-talk, like green-capitalist-talk is a way of soothing our anxieties by telling us we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Here is an un-soothing truth. What cannot go on forever won't. We are on borrowed time.

The book I am writing is about money, about late-modern, general-purpose money as an ecological phenomenon (channeling Alf Hornborg's theses on money), which--apart from being a kind of solvent that breaks up geological, biological, and community structures (Hornborg calls general-purpose money an "algorithm of destruction")--serves its possessors as an entitlement to the land and labor of others. Money does two things that are important to capitalists: it increases the velocity of exchange, and it simplifies radical accumulation. Without money as a universal exchange equivalent, no one can become as rich as Bill Gates. Without money, people cannot rapidly exchange their work as a hospital orderly down the street for Mexican lemons at the local Meijers.

For those who missed Political Economy 101--and most of us did have it hidden from us by the psuedoscience of economics--money allows us to make unlike things alike in one respect: price. Next to me right now are a book, a computer mouse, a coffee cup, and a lamp. These things each do something different; each is a different form with a different purpose. But what makes them all the same is that each--at the moment of exchange, or sale--has a price. It is exchangeable for a quantity of money. Price is an abstraction that encompasses them all; and when things are commodified--or turned into something-for-sale--that gives the holder of the most cash the entitlement to the most stuff.

Jason Moore's theses begin here and go deeper, into the capitalist oikeios, that nature-culture synthesis that organizes our lives, our thoughts, and our politics. If capitalism is fundamentally about accumulation, Moore, points out, then historically that accumulation has been based on a good deal more than "appropriation of surplus value." He calls that surplus appropriation process the "paid" process, but explains that there is a whole other field of appropriation that is "unpaid." In this sector, I was delighted to find, Moore uses the three fields of appropriation cited by one of my favorite (eco)feminists, Maria Mies, "women, nature, and colonies." Capitalism has always relied on the unpaid work of women to sustain the paid work force as well as birth and raise new workers. Capitalism has always relied on the goods extracted from "nature." Capitalism has always relied on colonies--which are sites of plunder and super-exploitation based on lower costs of social reproduction (often, again, based on the unpaid work of women), and the necessary adjunct to core nations which inevitably exhaust the bases of production at home.

Here I will combine that thought with my own basic seven responsibilities of a capitalist state (outlined in the upcoming book): A capitalist state guarantees accumulation by (1) ensuring enough workers for production at wages low enough to sustain profits, (2) ensuring banks are prepared to provide credit for investment, (3) ensure the externalization of costs (pollution, etc.) sufficient to protect profit, including public financing for basic infrastructure, (4) ensuring markets sufficient to absorb production, (5) ensure expansion sufficient to compensate for saturated or collapsing markets, (6) ensuring general stability for business to flourish without major interruptions, and (7) ensuring an adequate supply of resources (which includes food affordable by workers).

Moore specifies four components of production that have historically always been necessary for continued accumulation, called the Four Cheaps. His point is that--in the history of capitalism--every time one of these components has risen in price beyond a certain threshold, there has been a crisis of accumulation. The Four Cheaps are cheap labor-power, cheap energy, cheap food, and cheap raw materials. This is not a reiteration of the covertly-Malthusian "limits to growth" argument that flows from the aforementioned dualism. This is not saying that capitalism (the subject) is exhausting cheap nature, et al, (the objects) in order to produce things for profit; but that capitalism is and always has been an historical relation that produced cheap nature itself. Capitalism does not impact ecology. Capitalism is an ecology.

It is easy to infer part of his argument from FAO statistics that show a near doubling of the Food Price Index over the last seventeen years; or rising labor compensation rates; or how China holds 80 percent of the world's critical tungsten reserves, with the U.S. as the largest end consumer; or even how our current oil price drop is not indicative of a supply overage but a long-term supply crisis; or how corn has become not just a publicly-subsidized, energy-sink food source, but now also animal feed, fuel, industrial material input, and weapon of financial warfare.


The clear tendency of the capitalist mode of production is to dissolve the boundaries between each of the Big Four inputs, especially between food, energy, and raw materials, which have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades. (Moore)

These are demonstrable, as is Moore's claim that--so far in history, at least--requires the Four Cheaps cheap, or the accumulation regime gets into big trouble. Food feeds people, and people work on fossil-energized machines, and food requires land and water and energy inputs, and machines require those distant mineral inputs, which require labor . . . and around and round we go. These four are indices for analysis. What the ecology of capitalism does is continually do the same thing price (value) does: destroy the distinctions between them. As we have entered into a long period of "under-production," capitalism has entered into a kind of autoimmune disorder in which the whole process is being subsumed into a dynamic of expanding financialization. This is why economic models no longer work. This is why Keyesian economics will not work (sorry, Bernie). This is why the tried and true methods of the Fed no longer work. The Four Cheaps become not-cheap--in historical time--at once. Because they are an inseparable expression of capitalist ecology. And financialization does not respond to the former diktat of "supply and demand" (that is why falling oil prices correspond with looming shortages). Rather that capitalism achieving longer waves of accumulation (always punctuated by crises), we have entered a period of very short waves predicated on the continual reflation and deflation of "bubbles" of fictional value. Real estate is now bundled with pension funds and pork futures. Homogenization by portfolio.

The catastrophic consequences--"environmentally-speaking"-- of capitalist ecology are based on that ecology being an ecology of waste. Monetary profit always rewards people for doing the wrong thing (half of all the food produced now in the U.S. ends up in the trash).

In these terms, capitalism is not a system of efficiency, and can only be identified as a system of profligacy and waste. Such wastefulness is, moreover, immanent to capital; it is bound up with the constitution of capital itself, and not only its palpable consequences for the biosphere and for particular landscapes. While the latter is recognized by Cartesian Marxists (e.g. Foster, 2012; Dowd, 1989), and is connected with today’s biospheric problems, such as climate change, the story is more than one of outputs. Waste is possible as “output” (after production) only to the degree that unpaid work is wastefully appropriated as “input” (before and during production); waste, in other words, is both producer and product of capital accumulation. The condition for such massive production of waste (after production) is capitalism’s wasteful appropriation of life and energy (during production) – is capitalism’s commitment to an extreme form of quantification: the law of value. The history of American bison hunters on the Great Plains in the 19th century – taking only the hide and leaving the rest to rot (Isenberg, 2001) – serves as an appropriate metaphor for the capitalist world-ecology’s vast and wasteful history.

I hope what I've written so far has piqued the interest of the reader. I told Amy Laura's class, when asked about my history with Marxism, what I now thought of Marxism as an ex-Marxist and a Christian. I told them that I have always found Marx valuable as an interpretive framework and that I continue to do so. I told them that while I disagreed with Marxist Promethianism (something of which Hornborg and Moore are not guilty), and with Marxist ethics (Marxists find themselves in the same conundrum as the rest of modernity on this account--see MacIntyre's After Virtue), and with the belief of many Marxists that the working class is a revolutionary force (I have found the opposite to be true at least since the 1970s), and that I disagree with Marxist activists belief that change can only be accomplished through civil war. On the other hand, I told them, as an interpretive framework, Marxism is one hundred times more valuable than liberalism. Which is why I remain in close dialogue with Marxists and post-Marxists. I don't know where Jason Moore classifies himself these days, and Hornborg has generally identified as a kind of neo-Marxist; but I want to encourage my readers--all ten of you--if you have no more than a passing familiarity with Marxist-inspired thought, or if your familiarity is solely through secondhand critiques from hostile liberals, you are missing some important things.

I have prepped the reader here, hopefully, with enough background to ramp up your familiarity with the subject, to appreciate this very important piece of analysis from Dr. Moore, which I am attaching below. Moore's critique of Cartesianism alone, as well as his grounding in history, means Thomists in particular, already share a good deal of common philosophical ground with him. The essay is called The End of Cheap Nature, and I hope you will enjoy it. It takes about an hour to digest it; and is well worth the time invested.

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