I wanted to comment on XrayMike’s excellent and provocative post “Earth to Humans”, as well as some of the follow up comments, but the response got a little lengthy so I am guest posting my remarks.
This linkage between capitalism and the economy, labor exploitation, environmental sustainability, population growth and various and sundry other issues is so complex that it defies deterministic explanation.
Attempts to assign single variable responsibility to any culture, economic system or similar set of circumstances are inherently flawed. These phenomena are overdetermined, which is to say that they contain dialectic influence between each other, which is in effect multi-variable causality. Very difficult to resolve, and there are but two fields that can do this (dynamic, non linear interactions), mathematics and philosophy. It is interesting that the field of philosophy was the first to resolve these methods, in the absence of mathematical tools.
Dialectic philosophy can mean many things, but in this context it is the ever changing relationship of causality between a political economy and the environment, population growth, and resources.
To cite an example, I’m reminded of an excellent PBS special that I saw a few months ago, “The Dust Bowl” which provides ample (and contemporary) illustration of the interaction between capitalism and the environment.
The Dust Bowl was the worst man made environmental disaster in recorded history, and illustrates the nebulous and overdetermined link between population, capitalism, and the political economy.
Hard on the heels of the Great Depression, the ‘30’s brought the convergence of several influential factors to the travesty of population settlement in the American Great Plains. Fueled with the intoxicant of Manifest Destiny, the dynamics of the era were remarkable, as simultaneously and with varying degrees of import, we saw the following:
1.) A ceaseless expansion of population from the East and South westward into the Plains and onwards to the Pacific. There were many factors contributing to this westward expansion, but central was the fresh memory of the Mexican-American war, the ongoing dispute over the Oregon border with the British empire, and other land grab type concerns on the part of the US Government. By now the native Americans were suitably marginalized by the offshoot of Manifest Destiny, namely, the machinations of Accumulation by Dispossession, the time honored means to justify a good old fashioned land grab. What was left was a State sponsored occupation of these territories under the Lockean theory of ownership by virtue of land cultivation.
2.) To accomplish this, we had a series of “Homestead Acts”, legislation which essentially gave away land parcels in the Great Plain regions ranging from 160 acres (circa 1860) initially, then gradually expanded to 640 acres (circa 1930). Basically free land for any who might ask. These were typically settled by families, who raised sufficient numbers of children to work the land plots as productive farms, it being key to the number of family members relative to the size of the plot. These small independent farms were decidedly non-capitalist, although they did contain internally, strong elements of class structure, mostly feudal class. This arrangement (homesteading) was preferred by the capitalists of the North, as they were concerned about the Southern states rampant success with large scale plantations using slaves, (circa 1860) as the Northerners (with the Industrial Revolution now underway) could not compete with free slave labor. They knew full well in a few decades time that these independent homesteaders would be subsumed into the capitalist mode of production with the emergence of new factories and the spectre of large scale competition from massive factory farms, ultimately rendering the small family farmer obsolete.
3.) What these farmers did not know was that the arid land in the Great Plains had evolved over the centuries to include a ground cover of prairie grass, a drought tolerant plant that covered the vast majority of this enormous land mass East of the Rockies.
4.) At the same time, Industrialization of the Northern states and Great Lakes regions began to take hold to a very significant scale, and the transition to mechanized farming was begun in earnest. Companies like John Deere, Caterpillar, and many others began where Eli Whitney had left off, and brought massive mechanization to the farm business. Capital again plays a multi-faceted role, exhibiting it’s curious ability to simultaneously fund the enormous factories (modes of production, including entire supply chains) and at the same time to fund the customer base as well. And the customer base was the small 160 acre farmer run by a traditional family. So how does this work, how does a dirt poor farmer obtain a piece of capital equipment? Why he borrows the money of course, and this era has the interesting attribute of the emergence of a third arm of Capitalism, the Money Lending Capitalist, to the retail farm sector. They borrow the money using the Government supplied Homestead Act land as collateral. The same money lending capitalists also lent money to the John Deere’s of the world to expand the mode of production, and lending to large scale factory farmers at the same time. But perhaps most interesting to me anyway, was the legacy of farm equipment manufacturer John Deere, who during this period filled the role of Money Lending Capitalists, as they built scores of community based local dealerships and get this, gave out the tractors to whoever wanted one (for a small monthly payment of course). This circular monetary flow is a critical illustration to how capital works, funding both expansive modes of production, as well as the customer base. It also illustrates the ingrained tension between separate money lending capitalists (such as banks) and industrial capitalists, (in this case John Deere) as Deere wanted desperately to control the financing of their equipment, using both the machines and the land as collateral. How can you lose?
The irony though is how the recipients of these “factory” loans from John Deere perceived the fleecing of their surplus value, unlike the banks which were largely reviled during and after the Great Depression, especially by the farm community, the reputation of John Deere rose like a shooting star, with it’s fanatical customer base ever grateful for the “neighborly” largesse the corporation showed, even as it was repossessing failed farms. Those suckers never knew what hit them.
5.) If this was not enough, the world was undergoing a massive shortage of wheat production, largely due to the loss of Russian wheat farming, which was having a few problems of its own what with Stalin’s antics. At the time, Russia was the largest producer of wheat in the world, and this capacity suddenly went off line. This prompted a near panic in the ‘30’s, with the US government facing the very real possibility that it could not access sufficient wheat to feed its population, and as such offered incentives to homesteaders to grow wheat with highly subsidized wheat pricing.
Hopefully the point is made that these five factors combine simultaneously to unleash a set of conditions that results in the worst man made environmental disaster ever recorded. No one single factor is to blame, rather the interaction at precisely the right time and exactly the right proportion was needed to create this disastrous result. Dialectic reasoning allows one to consider these multiple factors that are constantly interacting and changing, and to assess the system as a whole, as well as to derive meaning.
The small farmer, flush with opportunity to provide for his family and at the same time to raise his standard of living significantly, went with the program and borrowed money to buy farm equipment. At the turn of the last century, these types of purchases were made by collective, as any fool knew that a small farmer did not need expensive capital equipment that was used 2 weeks a year for harvest and then sat idle for the remainder. These machines were shared, and where possible, harvests were time phased to allow a harvester or combine for example, to serve a number of nearby farms. One of the key attributes of the early and mid 20th century was the atomization of collective groups into individual consumers, effectively turning them away from collective sharing into not just stand alone consumers, but consumers competing with each other (for status) as well as capitalist aspirations. (A Dodge in every garage)
What with all these new tractors, what is one to do but to start tearing up the ground and plant, you guessed it, wheat. So all that centuries old prairie grass was quickly dispensed with, and one got about the business of rutting up the earth as fast as possible to plant wheat in order to get some of the subsidized wheat pricing in order to buy some consumer goods. At first, it was a “bumper” crop, so named as the bounty was often so large as to weigh down the bumper of the vehicle when it went to market.
Now all that was missing was an inflection point, and this came in the form of a massive drought which commenced in 1930 and lasted for more than a decade. Now that the prairie grass was removed by damaging farming practices (largely by tractor) over millions and millions of acres of land, there was no ability to retain any moisture, nor to hold and maintain topsoil.
And then the winds began.
In November, 1933, the Great Plains were besieged with truly incomprehensible wind storms that lifted up the newly exposed top soil and blew it hundreds, and in some cases thousands of miles. This went on with great frequency, often several times a week for 5, 6 , 7 years. The clouds were truly frightening and the dust permeated every pore of a house, caused massive lung infections and death (mostly of children), and resulted in the slaughter of millions of cattle as they had no food to eat. Large trenches were dug in farm fields, starving cattle herded into the trenches and shot to death by the hundreds of thousands. It was common to run a rope from the kitchen porch to the barn, as during the daytime dust storms it was impossible to see the “arm in front of your face” and people could get lost and die in their own backyard. The density of the black was described as “two midnights in a jug” hence the title of this post.
So how does one interpret this calamity? Is this a natural result of population growth, a symbol of man’s disrespect for the environment, a reveal of the vagaries of capitalism, or as some might say, an example of government intervention gone wrong. All have credible narratives around them, but the right answer is neither in the singular, the right answer considers that these effects occurred in synchronization with each other, and all had varying degrees of causality. All the listed factors are contributors, as well as some not listed.
But the illustrative lesson of the Dust Bowl may be distilled down to several key contributors, one of which might be the notion that man acting in his own best interests does not in fact benefit society as a whole. If farmers all around you practice destructive farming, and you do not, you are affected, and so are other non participants. These types of discussions lead to a thought domain characterized by John Rawls (Theory of Justice) and Robert Nozick’s (Anarchy, State, and Utopia) wherein the principle of side rights of the individual is broached effectively.
This type of thinking is an essential step to recognizing that governance and political philosophy have moved on substantially from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Particularly, the realization that “side rights” or the influence of a neighbor reducing your utility while in pursuit of his so called “liberty” is an intellectual dead end and is contradictory to the principle of any meaningful freedom. So is the prospect of being forced to sell your labor power for sustenance, to those that would exploit you- the very antithesis of freedom. Modern conservatives do not acknowledge side rights, principally because they are stuck with a paradigm where ostensibly the government is to blame for all that is wrong.
In fact, the opposite is often the case, and history illustrates many examples where government intervention, central planning, and other types of consolidated (as in not local) government edicts were essential to provide corrective action. We can again look to the Dust Bowl for evidence, as we have another contemporary example. These settlers were fiercely independent and reliably self sufficient, every bit what the modern libertarian would strive for, yet only with substantial government intervention were the ravages of the Dust Bowl finally mitigated through, among other initiatives, government demonstrated upgraded farming practices that rectified the environmental damage precluding it from happening again. After nearly a decade of this self realized environmental disaster, the settlers were, literally, begging for government support and guidance to get back on their feet.
This also occurred in the late 19th century, with the start of the Progressive Era and the time of the Robber Barons, wherein the population begged and demanded that the capitalists of the day be brought to heel. This worked until the ‘20’s and the Gilded Age, when Capital shed the chains of progressive influence, and once again blew the place up with the 1929 Crash, which brings us full circle back to the Dust Bowl.
Yes, everyone will die, every empire will fall, every monetary system will collapse, and ultimately we will in fact consume all of the finite resources on our planet. To this ultimate end, no one can offer a panacea, not Marxism, not Communism, and certainly not Capitalism, all will ultimately collapse if for nothing else but lack of resources. But it is our lot to Reason, it is human to better oneself.
We have been infected with a malaise that has altered our very DNA, it has damaged our ability to reason, it has blinded us to the contradictions that are self evident, it has promoted false consciousness, and it has denied the very discussion of alternatives.
Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.” The moral of the quote, supposedly, is that a future society must emerge from the spontaneous dynamics of history, not from the isolated imaginings of some scribbler. This isn’t without some irony, since two years later Marx the scribbler wrote his own little cookshop recipe in his Critique of the Gotha Program — it involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.
As it happens, Marx’s comment was a riposte to a negative review he’d received in a Paris newspaper run by devotees of the philosopher Auguste Comte, criticizing Marx for offering no concrete alternative to the social system he condemned. (That’s why, in the original quote, he asks wryly if the recipes the reviewers had hoped to see happened to be “Comtist” ones.) To grasp the context, you have to understand that like many utopian writers of the era, Comte proffered scenarios for a future society that were marked by an almost deranged grandiosity, featuring precise and fantastically detailed instructions on practically every facet of daily life. It was this obsessive kind of future-painting that Marx was really taking aim at.
Maybe the most fundamental reason the Left has been suspicious of such visions is that they have so often been presented as historical endpoints – and endpoints will always be disappointing. The notion that history will reach some final destination where social conflict will disappear and politics come to a close has been a misguided fantasy on the Left since its genesis. Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next.
There is much ongoing dialogue on how to fold some of the more contemporary concepts of political philosophy into actionable lifestyle choices, and I am a big fan of these types of discussions- even if they do turn circular (which they often do). But nevertheless, initiatives like Richard Wolf’s worker funded exchanges wherein surplus value is distributed to workers, and managers are elected democratically, and (as in the excerpt above) centrally planned command economies are hybridized by using free market demand signals to inform production volumes and regional needs. Reintroducing class consciousness as a repetitive topic of discussion reinforcing where and when exploitation occurs is another example.
The major impediment of any refined approach to political philosophy is not so much what we don’t know, it’s discarding the nonsense that we do know.
I think the circumstances on Easter Island although not capitalistic, were similar to what happened in the Dust Bowl, one factor was inadequate and (at times) inappropriate command level decisions. I think if you trace most of the pre-capitalist failures of societal endeavors you will find similar themes, improper or missing command authority, reliance on principles of self liberty over common good, lack of class consciousness, etc.
Capitalism just adds rocket fuel to a fire that is already smoldering.