Capitalism (and the eco-crisis)

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

The above three areas of focus [in the context of this blog, previous posts], namely Christianity, science and technology, have been shown to embody and perpetuate discursive roots of the Promethean attitude towards nature. Hadot (2008: 101) summarises this attitude as consisting of “the use of technical procedures to tear nature’s ‘secrets’ from her in order to dominate and exploit her”; he adds, as has been indicated d above, that it “has had gigantic influence. It has engendered our modern civilization and the worldwide expansion of science and industry”. Hadot (2008: 98) hints at another ingredient in the ideological Promethean pot: profit. He writes, “The blind development of technology and industrialisation, however, spurred on by the appetite for profit, places our relation to nature, and nature itself, in danger”. Some of the dangers, or rather consequences of the attitude are detailed in chapter 1 – the ecological consequences – as subsequently shown in the explicitly human expansion of ecologically-destructive industries of chapter 2 that serve human ends. An exploration of the ‘appetite for profit’ begins this exploration of a discourse that dominates contemporary society, namely, capitalism, an economic system that will be shown to combine various Promethean characteristics so far encountered.

Kovel (2002: 39) reminds readers of his explicitly-titled book, The enemy of nature: the end of Capitalism or the end of the world? of something that is blatantly obvious about capitalism: that capitalist production is primarily for profit, versus use:

Those who do not know yet that capitalist production is for profit and not use can learn it right away from watching Wall Street discipline corporations that fail to measure up to standards of profitability. Capitalists celebrate the restless dynamism that these standards enforce, with its drive for innovation, efficiency and new markets.

Kovel continues his exposé by immediately outlining the difference between ‘exchange-value’ and use-value, the former being the central focus of capitalism in that ‘exchange-value’ is the area in which capital (profit) is accumulated; he writes (2002: 39) that use-value

signifies the commodity’s place in the ever-developing manifold of human needs and wants, while exchange-value represents its ‘commodity-being’, that is, its exchangeability, an abstraction that can be expressed only in quantitative terms, and as money. Broadly speaking, capital represents that regime in which exchange-value predominates over use-value in the production of commodities – and the problem with capital is that, once installed, this process becomes self-perpetuating and expanding”.

The self-perpetuation of capital is an important point and will be addressed below, but for now the focus is on the point about the quantitative made by Kovel, a crucial Promethean characteristic of capitalism that is shared with ‘mechanics’/technology and science, as discussed in previous sections of this chapter. In capitalism, the focus on the quantitative is elevated to soaring heights by the exclusive focus on quantifiable profit, especially monetary profit. Baer (2012: 300) reminds readers, via reference to Foster, that private “corporations are institutions with one and only one purpose: the pursuit of profit”; the industries scrutinised in Chapter 2 are constituted by private corporations. Kovel (2002: 48) discusses this ‘pursuit of profit’ with reference to the benchmark of progress in industrial neoliberal free-market capitalist society – GDP. Capital, he says,

employs purely quantitative indices such as gross domestic product (GDP) because they are convenient indices of accumulation. Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number, which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification. It is necessary, though, to see thinking in terms of GDP as no mere error, but the actual logic of the reigning power…

To give a clearer picture of capitalism’s prioritisation of such indices, consider the following from the online Library of Economics and Liberty1; the focus is on the USA, the country heralded as the epitome of free-market capitalism, a system that has had global reach for generations; note the discursive assumptions regarding domination via the phrase, ‘the world’s best system of economic statistics’:

Gross domestic product, the official measure of total output of goods and services in the U.S. economy, represents the capstone and grand summary of the world’s best system of economic statistics. The federal government organizes millions of pieces of monthly, quarterly, and annual data from government agencies, companies, and private individuals into hundreds of statistics, such as the consumer price index (CPI), the employment report, and summaries of corporate and individual tax returns. The U.S. Department of Commerce then marshals the source data into a complete set of statistics known as the National Income and Product Accounts. This set of double-entry accounts provides a consistent and detailed representation of production in the United States (GDP) and its associated income (national income).

The link is almost explicitly made: the ‘logic of the reigning power’, that power being free-market capitalism itself, is expressed in indices such as GDP, which are ‘purely quantitative’ in the most discursively reductionist of manners. Such exclusive economic quantitativeness has been identified in previous sections as a prominent discursive influence on human actions with consequences that have gradually built up to the ecological crisis; this ‘quantitative’ ‘discursive influence’ is a characteristic of the Promethean, so at the very least one can safely and soundly claim that capitalism (with its love of quantitative indices) is, from the outset, dominated by at least one brutally Promethean characteristic, which has been shown above to have very clear historical roots and very dire ecological consequences. Indeed, Baer (2012:57), in Global capitalism and climate change, quoting Bodley, points out the link between GDP and CO2 emissions: “One crucial growth trend is for scale increases in a country’s per capita GDP to correlate strongly with scale increases in carbon dioxide emissions per capita. …This correlation points to a link between economic growth and global warming and ecological degradation.”

The above line of reasoning holds that capitalism is, as a start, the Promethean quantitative writ large – the second and more ecologically-impacting characteristic of capitalism is also Promethean: capitalism’s inherent imperative to grow endlessly. This is a well-known aspect of the economic system, and it will again resonate with other tendencies of the Promethean: dominion, as well as the drive to ‘dominate and multiply’ (at the expense of nature). Kovel (2002: 41), reiterating first that capitalism is, fundamentally, quantitative, reveals the following about the capitalist addiction to growth:

[C]apital is quantitative in its core, and imposes the regime of quantity upon the world: this is a ‘necessity’ for capital. But capital is equivalently intolerant of necessity; it constantly seeks to go beyond the limits that it itself has imposed, and so can neither rest nor find equilibrium: it is irredeemably self-contradictory. Every quantitative increase becomes a new boundary, which is immediately transformed into a new barrier. The boundary/barrier ensemble then becomes the site of new value and the potential for new capital formation, which then becomes another boundary/barrier, and so forth and on into infinity – at least in the logical schemata of capital. Small wonder that the society formed on the basis of producing for the sake of capital before all else is restlessly dynamic, that it introduces new forms of wealth, and continually makes the past forms obsolete, that it is obsessed with change and acquisition – and that it is a disaster for ecologies.

Elsewhere, Kovel (2002: vii) alludes to the boundary/barrier ‘ensemble’ as “capital’s ruthless desire to expand…”. Such an addiction to endless growth is a characteristic of capitalism that has led many commentators to compare the economic system to cancer; Kovel (2002: 51), for example, speaks of “the cancerous imperative to expand”. Thomas Princen (2010: 32) goes much further; in the following observations, he succinctly brings together many aspects of this research paper so far in a hard-hitting manner, while raising the issue of ‘capitalism as cancer’:

Here is the paradox: the economy depends on increasing consumption, but ever-increasing consumption strains ecosystems, both resources (soil and water, for instance) and waste sinks (the oceans and the atmosphere). Before tackling this paradox head-on, let’s turn the question of consuming less on its head. A system that grows endlessly crashes. Think of cancer cells, debt-ridden mortgages, fisheries. It defies logic, not to mention a few well-known laws of physics (like thermodynamics), to presume that with continuing growth in consumption – that is, continuing growth in the total throughput of material and energy through our economy – the current economy will not crash.

Kovel (2002: x) agrees: “One would think that a moment of doubt would be introduced into the official scenario by the screamingly obvious fact that a society predicated on endless expansion must inevitably collapse its natural base”. The following chapter will look at discursive apparatuses in operation that prevent, or marginalise the ‘moments of doubt’ Kovel has in mind and keep members of society at large ideologically subservient to the capitalist economy in all its Promethean glory. For now, the ecological consequence of the cancerous imperative to expand needs to be reiterated for the sake of establishing a clear link between it and capitalism, the contemporary heart of Prometheanism globally: the imperative to expand “continually erodes the edges of ecologies along an ever-lengthening perimeter, overcoming or displacing recuperative efforts and accelerating a cascade of destabilisation” (Kovel 2002: 51). The details of the ecological crisis (Chapter 1) caused by human industry (Chapter 2) is evidence enough of the truth of Kovel’s observation, but Baer (2012:115) lists a few examples that are useful reminders of what ‘cancerous’ expansionary processes look like:

Global capitalism, which relies heavily upon fossil fuels, has played a significant role in the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which in turn has contributed to climate change. The anthropogenic sources of climate change include a growing global population clamouring for both basic and luxury goods; the growing proliferation of motor vehicles; a growing number of airplane flights around the world; the construction of factories, offices, shopping malls and dwelling units; the overheating and overcooling of these facilities; industrial agriculture; deforestation; the production of consumer products (many of which are not necessary for subsistence); militarism; and various other operations.

The Capitalist Promethean drive to expand endlessly, intimately linked with its exclusively quantitative lens through which nature is viewed, is clearly epitomised by money, specifically, fiat currency, that is, fractional reserve money, without which capitalism in its neoliberal free-market sense would not be possible. This observation from Kovel (2002: 38) reveals something of the role of money: “capital [is] that ubiquitous, all-powerful and greatly misunderstood dynamo that drives our society. The established view sees capital as a rational factor of investment, a way of using money to fruitfully bring together the various features of economic activity”; in other words, ‘money makes the world go round’, as is commonly said. Already here, money – purely quantitative – seems to be at the ‘heart’ of capitalism. However, the workings of fiat currency were explored at the end of Chapter 2 and were shown to be entirely counter-intuitive; there it was observed that money is debt, a point that can be evidenced here quite simply by reiterating something that was established and evidenced in Chapter 2, specifically that as the world’s supply of money has increased, so has the world’s debt-levels. Debt increases alongside the money-supply. Crucially here, one must remember that debt is contractual, i.e. when a loan is taken out, the loan-holder signs to pay back the debt, and as was seen in the final section of Chapter 2, governments are indebted to federal banks to repay loans; but the money to repay the loans can never be created without creating more debt because money is mainly created in the acts of securing more government bonds and through fractional reserve lending – again, debt increases alongside the money supply; or vice versa now, the money supply increases as debt increases. Such is the nature of capitalism’s self-perpetuation, as alluded to in a fairly recent quote from Kovel. The relevance of this established fact of the counter-intuitive workings of the capitalist monetary system (see final section of Chapter 2) will here be made clear by repeating important information from near the end of the relevant section from Chapter 2: the need for continued economic growth fuelled partly by the fractional reserve money system [i.e. the need to pay back debt] is commented on at at wiki.mises.org2; the two “critics” are listed as David Korten and Henri Monibot: there “are also critics… who contend fractional reserve banking (by creating a necessity for indefinite economic growth) leads to environmental destruction and a sudden, catastrophic depletion of the earth’s natural resources as the unsustainable, exponential consumption of the world’s scarce natural resources reaches its inevitable limits.”

This need for continuing economic growth as per the imperatives (and corresponding systems) of Capitalism is why Kovel writes, in his second edition (2007: ix) to The Enemy of Nature, that there “is now a widespread assumption, which was much more limited five years ago, that the problem is not this corporation or that, or ‘industrialization,’ technology, or just plain bad luck, but all-devouring capital.” Baer (2012: 40) concurs: capitalism “is a global economic system that in its drive for profits requires ongoing accumulation and expansion. It systematically exploits human beings and the natural environment in pursuing its aims, despite rhetoric that it contributes to the prosperity and well-being of all human beings, albeit some more than others.”

The ‘need for continued economic growth’ (think GDP) at the expense of ecology has, in this section about capitalism, been established as a powerful Promethean characteristic, the historical roots of which have been traced. Considering this, it seems safe to say that capitalism is the Promethean reduced into its most crude, naked form: exclusively quantitative, inherently dominating over nature, mechanistically industrious, reducing everything to ‘materials’ or ‘resources’ (including ‘human’ resources); and its most important symbol is money, something that at its core is, ironically, debt; the common view is to see this debt as simply ‘financial’, but as has been shown in Chapter 2 and again briefly above, such a debt is not an arbitrary concoction in the workings of the capitalist monetary system. Rather, the debt is ultimately to those things (nature, and in a sense people too, who from a different perspective are included under the umbrella term ‘nature’) which have been reduced to ‘commodities’ via capitalist industry. In becoming the global economic system, it has imposed naked Prometheanism onto the world; the ecological situation is therefore an inevitable consequence of the Promethean writ large, and capitalism is the most recent and ubiquitous of its manifestations.

2 accessed 16 August 2014