Sunday, January 8, 2017

What’s In a Name?

"Anthropocene or Capitalocene? – Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism,” edited by Jason W. Moore, 2016

This book makes a good argument for Marxists and environmentalists to call the present bio-historical period the Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene. This would be a replacement for the Holocene, the name of the prior geologic period.  The Anthropocene has been embraced by the majority of scientists and even some Marxists, and is soon to be official.  Essentially the argument is that it is capitalism which has created a rift in the natural structure of the world, not generic humans or ‘human nature.’  The latter description (anthro Latin for ‘human’) leads to putting the onus on the Promethean ‘human,’ not a specific form of production.  This leads to a solution of either the deep-ecology perspective - returning to some neo-primitive hunter-gatherer world - or to reckless geo-engineering or insufficient tech fixes, all favored by pro-capitalist scientists and governments.  Or complacency, as ‘its only human – nothing you can do here.’ 

What Is the Anthropocene Hiding?
As James Hansen noted in the current issue of ‘Rolling Stone,’ even the pro-capitalist environmentalist Al Gore thinks the global warming question is well on the way to being solved.  This in spite of the fact that there have been almost indistinguishable differences between carbon production under U.S. Democratic or Republican administrations. After all, under it capital remains the same.

This book itself was probably constructed as a ‘call for papers.’  If you know a bit of how academics work, they submit papers they have usually already written, attempting to fit it into the new theme.  This sometimes results in submissions that have little to do with the topic, sometimes hilariously.  The first two essays in this book actually focus on humans as the main source of the problem.  The first is a jeremiad against the term ‘anthro,’ basically supporting anarchist/deep ecology environmental politics, with only a tiny caveat rejecting that position.  The second is a lyrical, impressionistic name-dropping riff that mentions capitalism only once, yet claiming the term ‘capitalocene’ for herself.

Moore’s essay gets to the heart of the matter, tracing the history of how capitalism has severely reshaped the environment since the birth of ‘merchant’ capital in the 1500s. Massive deforestation across Europe, mass profit-based agriculture like sugar plantations, crude mining (Potosi, Peru), using humans like animals, animal exterminations – all got their start in that period.  Coal and industrialism were not the actual beginning points, only later qualitative developments.  He focuses on the term ‘cheap nature’ to describe the profitable uses of nature by capital, which is never ‘costed’ in any private accounting balance sheet.  Marx pointed out in 1875 in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ that labor AND nature are the sources of all wealth, something that capitalism still has not grasped in the year 2017 – and never will.  The era of cheap nature is coming to an end and with it, a severe restriction of capitalist profits based on cheap nature.  This is part of the reason for economic stagnation in the productive sphere.  Moore also attacks Cartesian (and religious) mind/body dualism as an idealist ideological tool that allowed nature to be treated as something separate from humans.  In addition, Moore supplements Marx’s focus on the exploitation of wage labor by adding the exploitation of unpaid work (slavery and women at home) and unpaid nature (cheap nature.)

The 4th essay by Justin O’Brien attempts to introduce the term “Necrocene” (necro, Latin for ‘death’) as the name of the present period, due to the deadly effects of capitalist ‘growth’ and profit demands on planetary systems. It is not ‘creative destruction’ – it is plain destruction. This name seems somewhat diversionary, but perhaps serves only as an emphasis.  O’Brien details the long-running extinction of animal and plant life, the destruction of forests and pollution of rivers; the killing of people through slave and virtual slave labor; the introduction of radioactive particles into the very fabric of cells – though not also mentioning plastics, chemicals, pesticides and drugs that get in our bodies through the water supply. He details how the ‘evolutionism’ of Darwin and early bourgeois scientists had to take into account revolutionary ‘breaks’ in the fossil records, as discovered by Cuvier.  So by the 1970s there was a natural sciences consensus that capitalism’s managerial skills could not control planetary-wide negative-values.  In essence, the natural ‘debt’ was and is unpayable at this point, and slow, evolutionary change is not on the agenda. 

The 5th essay by Elmar Altvater is another short argument against technological ‘fixes’ like geo-engineering, similar to that found more extensively in Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything.”  He points out that the ‘fix’ resembles the ‘problem,’ as Einstein once remarked.  Capital is not merely an economic or social process, but re-shapes geography to do its bidding as well.  Engels pointed out in 1883 in the “Dialectics of Nature” that natural and social processes are a ‘dialectical totality.’  Hence, capital’s effect on nature is a unitary subject, as is its proposed ‘solutions.’ Beware.

This essay looks more at the final culmination of the Capitalocene – global warming - though overall global warming receives scant attention in this collection.  As I said in prior reviews and essays, humans on a world scale may be able to live on the basis of the living standards and some of the technology of the 1940s in the U.S.  Interestingly, scientists agree the rising line of global warming starts about 1940 as well, at the beginning of WWII.  The description of the Capitalocene by Moore and Altvater have it starting in the 1500s.  Moore does not detail the qualitative change of global warming that occurred later.  Anthropocene adherents date it’s beginnings to 1800, based on the steam engine or coal – i.e. a technology-based argument.

Altvater points out that nature and human life do not work in the same way as capital, so the rift between the two only grows.  The dialectical conclusion is that one or the other must die.  Nature and capital are at loggerheads; labor and capital are at loggerheads.  He elucidates that even if external costs were internalized in private accounting systems, many costs to the environment cannot be priced. This is why a ‘carbon tax’ as proffered by Hansen / / Gore is insufficient.   

The 6th essay by Hartley starts by listing the 5 major flaws in the theories of the Anthropocene as advanced by capitalist-oriented scientists:  It is exclusively human-centered; it is technology-centered; it is historically determined, positivist and apolitical, i.e. ignoring labor and capital. Hartley explores each one of these, based on Moore’s essay and his own inputs, especially concentrating on the role of racist and sexist capitalist culture.  His use of culture is valuable as an analysis of capital but seems a bit off-base in relation to the main issue, as if an earlier essay was grafted onto a newer introduction. 

The last essay by Parenti concentrates on the role of the capitalist state in responding to ‘weather’ emergencies. This reflects the fact that the national territorial state will need to respond to the Capitalocene to protect its corporations and businesses, which seems to be a given.  He declares that the state is an ‘inherently environmental entity.’  How this explains imperialist un-‘territoriality’ as embodied in hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world, international drone strikes, surveillance satellites, the internet, the U.N, the U.S. Air Force and Navy, world-wide imperialist production and mining site or JSOC assassination squads is not addressed.  Not sure again what this has to do with the main issue unless you are absolutely unaware of the relation between capital and its state. Again, another essay grafted onto the main topic. 

All together a partially-useful collection that makes a point all leftists should hear.  

Relevant reviews that directly relate to this subject matter below:  The Sixth Extinction,”This Changes Everything,” “Ubiquity,” “Reason in Revolt,” & “Collapse.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 8, 2017

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