Capitalism, Communism and the end of Nature

When it comes to its understanding of nature, capitalism is nothing short of schizophrenic. Right from its beginnings political economists have argued that of all the possible economic systems, none is more in tune with the way the world actually is than the capitalist system where human beings are free to truck and barter till their heart’s content.

One could begin here in 1705 with Madevelle’s infamous The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits where the subtitle gives the whole plot away. The idea that the world has been set up so that individual greed in the aggregate brings untold benefits to the whole was maybe the earliest versions of “the balance of nature”, a fairy tale constructed from the observations of an industrious insect. And we’ve gotten to the point where people are not just arguing that markets are natural, but that nature itself is a market. 

Weirdly enough, these ideas of capitalism’s naturalness run parallel to another idea at the root of its economics- that nature is something external to the capitalist system, a mere source of inputs at best and at worst an easily ignorable dumping ground for its unavoidable material waste.

It is this second (and in his view unique) attitude towards nature that is the main subject of Jason Moore’s book Capitalism in the web of life : ecology and the accumulation of capital. In his view capitalism inherited a dualistic idea of nature from the Cartesians where society and nature are something separate and that all of us, including environmentalists, have been in this intellectual trap ever since.       

Moore argues that all economic systems are natural in the sense that they are the way in which human beings socially plug into the flows of the larger biosphere in which they are embedded. All such social systems aim to reshape nature in its own image, and while at first glance this might seem a highly unnatural thing to do, on reflection one realizes that not just humans but probably most animals do something similar in kind if not to the same degree.

What he is describing is something ecologists call niche construction, and can be found throughout the living world. Beavers are famous for so molding the natural environment, and before the arrival of humans in the Americas (and perhaps even after), had a profound impact on the natural ecology. Yet Beavers are nothing when compared to microbes which have radically reshaped the earth’s oceans and atmosphere, sometimes to disastrous effect.

For Moore what makes capitalism distinct is that it is a system that can only function when it has access to “cheap” nature, that is, cheap labor, cheap food, cheap energy, and cheap resources. Capitalism’s expertise lies in scanning the globe and constantly finding new sources of cheap inputs to exploit. At the heart of every wave of wealth accumulation, somewhere lies a hidden act of expropriation.

What I find compelling here is that Moore has managed to clearly link the concerns of environmental and social justice while also connecting different realms of social justice into one overarching framework that includes the nonhuman world. Capitalism hasn’t merely lived off the underpaid labor of child and industrial workers, or on imperialism against the global south, or slavery and sharecropping, but the unpaid work of women and even the family itself.

Like all social systems, Moore thinks capitalism has an end date, and though I agree with him on that point, I think the death of capitalism is nowhere in sight, and this is the case even if I accept his proposed cause of mortality.

What Capitalism in the web of life argues is that we’re coming to the end of the age of the “Four Cheaps” and without them capitalism will be unable to function. As the population ages cheap labor disappears, the combined effects of a plateau in crop yields and climate change means the end of cheap food, we’ve reached the end of the line when it comes to cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels, and resources are becoming ever scarcer and therefore more expensive to extract. However, capitalism is a wily beast and if it resembles anything in nature it is evolution and its seemingly infinite adaptability. On the verge of running out of their current cheaps, capitalists are exploiting yet more new ones.

In terms of labor we have not so much automation as partial automation as a route to turn the customers themselves into part of the workforce. A large Walmart night have just two or three cashiers leaving those unwilling to waste an afternoon in line to check themselves out. Turning customers into workers is the essence of surveillance capitalism. The aging of the workforce in developed countries may or may not lead to increasing levels of automation, but for now our robots can be driven by remote workers in the developing world, our AI a magic trick performed by ghost workers hidden from sight. Many of these workers will eventually be plugged in global youth hungry for wages and prevented from being able to move. Africa is set to have 100s of millions of those. Frighteningly enough, capitalism’s new frontier seems to be inside the human body, our genes, our thoughts and emotions and the body itself.

The end of cheap energy doesn’t seem to be in the current cards either. The arrival of green energy is supplementing rather than replacing fossil fuels, fracking has turned the US into the world’s largest producer of oil, dirty coal remains cheap and plentiful, and is in decline largely because fracked natural gas has gotten so cheap so fast. When it comes to cheap resources, we now have serious talk about mining the ocean floor, or pummeling the earth with the mineral wealth derived from asteroids and the moon.

The one place where continued cheapness seems legitimately threatened is in terms of food as yields plateau in the face of climate change a still rising global population and a hoped for second Green Revolution via biotech continues to fail to arrive. I would include with that cheap water. But then again capitalism might just end up proposing we turn bugs into food.

A question I kept asking myself over and over as I read Capitalism in the web of life was if capitalism was really to blame for our environmental crisis or was it something else? For while I hate that system as much as anyone I can’t help wondering if we lost something important when we abandoned the concept of modernization. It was a detente era concept meant to explain the transition from agricultural to industrial societies from economies based on limited to commerce to consumer societies driven by the needs and wants of mass society.

Modernization theory, as I understand it, was ideologically ecumenical. Whether these transitions we driven from the top down as in Soviet communism or from the bottom up as in US style capitalism wasn’t as much a concern as the universal nature of these developments. We jettisoned modernization theory after the Cold War. The capitalist had won- it looked like there was only one way to truly modernize after all.

What was lost in abandoning modernization was the ability to see not just the difference between capitalism and communism, but their similarities. Creating societies based on ever rising production and mass consumption was bound to have a huge impact on the larger biosphere. Communist societies pursuing these goals were no better, and sometimes much worse, than capitalist ones.

In line with what I’ve said previously, what makes capitalism worse for nature than its alternatives is not so much the problems it causes but that it makes addressing these problems so wickedly difficult. If we really are facing the end of the Four Cheaps it will be because capitalism in its current neoliberal form proves itself incapable of making the kinds of systemic changes that system’s very survival requires. Balkanized global capital is probably not up to the task of generating what would amount to a second industrial revolution in terms of energy use, food production, resource extraction and a dozen other things. In that case our only hope will lie in planning from above, otherwise we’ll face not just the end of this despicable form of economy we call capitalism, but the end of a nature compatible with human flourishing as well.

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Forgotten October

Soviet Train poster

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This stupendous event, which  so shaped the history of the last century has, like few events of similar magnitude that continue to haunt the present, suffered the sad fate of being either being absent mindedly or deliberately forgotten. The lessons of October have been forgotten and brushed aside as a tragic cul de sac of of history for those who believe capitalism’s current reign to have been the  preordained “end of history” and even by Russia’s current autocrats themselves who see in the revolution a dangerous object lesson for those who might be encouraged to throw off the yoke of the vile.

When the weird fiction author and Marxist China Mieville published his vorticose, short history of the Russian Revolution bluntly titled October he did not expect to have the market almost all to himself. But he did. Publishers and historians seemed to doubt whether this century old event could garner any widespread interest. Who cares about what happened in a backward country a century ago? What’s the point engaging with communist revolution when we know how the story turned out? Gulags or Stalin’s demonic psyche are more dramatic material. And besides, communism was a failure, capitalism won the cold war. Even the Russians with their luxury apartments in London and their goldplated candidate in the White House admit the truth of capital’s triumph.

As anyone who has had the good fortune to read his novel The City and the City knows, Mieville is a freaking brilliant fiction writer. His demonstrated artistic skill in fleshing out characters, and more importantly, conveying reality in a new register came across in October, but sadly not enough. If his goal as an admitted partisan for Marxism was to convey the brilliance and courage of the major figures of the Russian Revolution- Lenin, Trotsky- it was only partially achieved for the revolution seemed less characterized by human agency than it was by factionalism and chaos. The Bolsheviks, almost in spite of themselves, ended up the last man standing after the accumulated simple mindedness of Russian czars and above everything the pain and devastation wrought by the First World War built up to the point of causing complete social collapse.

Lenin was without doubt a brave man, but his brilliance as a revolutionary consisted mainly in seeing the impossibility of coalitions between various factions holding while centripetal forces were tearing the Russian empire apart. A society incapable of coalitions between its strongest social forces is forced to chose between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. We know how Lenin chose.

One catches a glimpse of Mieville’s brilliance only in October’s epilogue when he reflects on the legacy of the Russian Revolution. After, with brutal honesty, admitting the crimes of Soviet Communism in the decades following the revolution, Mieville grapples with what the revolution meant. What the revolution revealed was that other futures were possible.

The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeds in screams of cold metal. The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express…. “

Revolutions, Marx said, are the locomotives of history. ‘Put the locomotive into top gear’, Lenin exhorted himself in a private note, scant weeks after the October revolution, ‘and keep it on the rails.’ But how could you keep it there if there really was only one true way and it was blocked?

Mieville quotes Bruno Schulz’ story ‘The Age of Genius’:

Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which we can shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. (319)

Mieville’s point, I take it, is that the Russian Revolution offers up to us an attempt to breach an alternative future from the junction of 1917. The failure to actually constitute an alternative to the capitalist order that is our own doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the opportunity remains to diverge again in the direction of the future that was lost.

That is certainly true, but there is something else, something even more poignant and beyond his own authorial fetishes, to  Mieville’s choice of railroads and switchmen as images for lost and alternative futures.

Perhaps the greatest novelist during the most brutal phase of Soviet history was Andrei Platonov. The son of a railway worker Platonov too saw in the locomotive a potent analogy for the world brought forth by the revolution. Early in the revolution Platonov had written to his wife:

Even though I had not yet completed technical school, I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the driver. The remark about the revolution being the locomotive of history was transformed inside me into a feeling that was strange and good: remembering this sentence, I worked very diligently on the locomotive . . . ‘

Platonov never lost his faith in Marxism or his affection for the revolution, but the deep humanity on display in his novels ultimately allowed him to grasp the cruelty and absurdity of the Soviet system. He would turn his experience on the locomotive into a harrowing scene in his story Chevengur a frightened engineer drives his train to collision:

The locomotive was quivering with tension and swaying its entire body, searching for a chance to hurl itself down the embankment and escape the power and pent-up speed that were suffocating it. Sometimes Dvanov felt that the locomotive had already left the rails and the coaches were about to follow and he was dying in the quiet dust of soft soil, and Aleksandr put his hands to his chest to keep his heart from terror.

Platonov would compose an even more powerful metaphor in what became his most well-known novel The Foundation Pit. There, instead of revolutionaries driving trains off their tracks, Platonov imagined them digging a giant hole, the first step in laying the foundation of a longed for utopian arcology that would house the dispossessed. It is a hilarious, absurdist tale the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett and perhaps the best reflection on the cruelties of bureaucracy ever written.

Andrei had a real example to go on when writing The Foundation Pit. The planned Palace of the Soviets that was to tower 1,362 feet which would be topped by a 6,000 ton statue of Lenin, so large that there was to be a library in his head. With the ravages of World War II the colossus was never built although the Cathedral of Christ the Savior had been leveled to make room for the imagined temple to the new gods.

The point Platonov, who remained a Marxist until the end of his days, seemed to be making with his fiction was to remind the world what the revolution was for. The why of the revolution was to find an alternative to the human crushing nature of both autocracy and capitalism. What it appeared to be doing instead was to combine the worst aspects of both.

There is a history to how this happened, how the revolution went from being a moment of revolution to one of subjugation under far worse chains. At it’s root lie the sweeping aside of real human beings in the quest for an idol of technological and economic progress.

You can see the revolution go off the rails, the humanism Platonov clung to die in an interview of Lenin by none other than H.G. Wells. The model for the Soviet future that Lenin put forward in that interview was drawn from the apparent power of the planned economy that had been wielded by all the capitalist countries during the First World War. Lenin seconded the irrationality of capitalism which cannibalized the productive forces of its own societies a reality he had learned from reading Chiozza Money’s book The Triumph of Nationalization which told the story of the success of economic planning during the war, and its dissolution in the war’s aftermath as capitalism reasserted itself.  In Lenin’s vision, the Soviet Union would be the first nation modernized and ran from above, the harbinger of the post-revolutionary society that would soon overthrow capitalism and run the globe. It was an argument dear to Well’s cold technocratic heart, even if he had little interest in Marxism or social justice.

The seeds for this dictatorship of the experts could be traced well before the Russian Revolution in the dispute between the anarchist Bakunin and Marx. Bakuin opposed Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” because as he predicted in his Statism and Anarchy it would leave the oppressive nature of the state intact:

… no state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…

Dictatorship of the proletariat would inevitably mean a despotism under the technocrats:

If science were to dictate the laws, the overwhelming majority, many millions of men, would be ruled by one or two hundred experts. Actually it would be even fewer than that, because not all of science is concerned with the administration of society. This would be the task of sociology – the science of sciences – which presupposes in the case of a well-trained sociologist that he have an adequate knowledge of all the other sciences. How many such people are there in Russia – in all Europe? Twenty or thirty – and these twenty or thirty would rule the world? Can anyone imagine a more absurd and abject despotism?

Lenin’s experiment with “war communism”, technocratic management of the economy, ended in starvation, social collapse and rebellion. Yet if the man’s true genius lie anywhere it was in his flexibility in the face of events.

With the New Economic Policy he reversed course and adopted a limited form of capitalism. He also, in the face of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion that grew out of the failure of war communism, put an end to the “soviets” the councils of average citizens and workers who arose out of the revolution to take control of their fate and he imposed the centralized control of society by the Bolsheviks. For a time the nascent Soviet Union would have the worse of both worlds: an economy based on capitalist economics with all political power concentrated in the hands of one party. A world not all that dissimilar to the one found in China today. The NEP itself would be killed by Stalin who returned to Lenin’s idea of modernization from above only this time with a cruelty and speed Lenin could never have imagined.

It’s with the lost opportunity of the soviets that I so wish Mieville would have focused his considerable talents and attention. For a time, the collapse of the old autocratic regime during the revolution really did open up new spaces of freedom where citizens took control over their own economic and political affairs through the soviets and enabled rapid progressive reforms that would take decades elsewhere to unfold. In October Mieville does draw our attention to these human possibilities opened up by the revolution.

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ protections and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the flourishing of adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though these moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise. (317)

Who were the people who occupied this temporary space of freedom, and how was their freedom gained and lost? What does this real freedom look like? It is into their utopias I wish Mieville would have taken us rather than focus on the “great men” of history who ultimately drove the revolution to its doom.

The source of the lost and now forgotten freedom of the October Revolution Mieville seems to find in the hopeless and besieged revolutionaries in a world where the expected communists revolutions in Europe failed to arrive and the capitalist powers remained implacably hostile to the revolutionary society.

There’s certainly much too that, when Stalin abandoned the NEP in 1928 and began the forced, rapid modernization of the Soviet Union he did so in large part for geopolitical reasons. All of the big powers at this time understood that power of a unified, fully industrialized, continental state; namely, the then isolationist United States. Multiple powers during the 1930’s: Japan, Germany, the USSR, the British Empire would struggle with how to configure themselves into something on par with the US, both to protect themselves and to project power. This was how the Nazi jurists Carl Schmitt understood German expansionism.

And yet, all the pieces for the type of totalitarian society the Soviet Union became were already in place before these imperatives became apparent. On the left, Bakunin had warned of the potential for technocratic despotism within Marxism itself just as on the right Dostoyevsky had predicted something similar with his parable of The Grand Inquisitor and warned us that the quest after material prosperity might ultimately mean the death of our humanity.

In light of the seeming success of systems where ruling elites took control of both economics and information during the First World War Lenin had tried to move the Soviet Union in the direction of a centrally controlled economy. Coupled with the collapse of capitalism in the depression in the 1930’s Stalin’s economics of “the five year plan” didn’t appear retrograde but a glimpse of the future. His iteration of the theme particularly brutal- collectivization resulting in perhaps 12 million deaths- because of the speed at which Soviet society be industrialized relied on the corpse of its overwhelmingly larger agricultural sector. Nevertheless, the idea that the society of the future would be technocratically managed was nearly universal from the 1930’s onward with H.G. Wells being a particularly vocal proponent of this view.

We know how this idea began to unravel in Western countries with revolts against “the establishment” starting in the 1960’s, how the Chinese in the late 1970’s adopted a version of Lenin’s NEP, and how the sclerotic bureaucracy that the Soviet Union had become imploded a decade later. Still, one might legitimately wonder given the rise and spectacular success of behemoth companies that are essentially planning algorithms; most notably Amazon and Wal Mart, whether the types of command economics dreamed up in the early 20th century were just computationally premature. Thanks to Moore’s Law might we have the capacity to rationally manage our economies in a way previously impossible? Might this be done in a way that retained the humanism of figures like Platonov? Those are big questions that will have to wait for another day.