A Response: March 18, 2009

This is a post from a previous blog that is no longer available.

A response
March 18, 2009

I wrote a response to Shaviro’s excellent analysis of a conference he attended that featured Zizek and Badiou.

It follows, with a few modifications:

Henry Warwick says:
March 15, 2009 at 10:47 pm

I would like to point out that capitalism has always operated at the expense of the commons. It is why the biosphere is as utterly screwed as it is.

From my research and perspective, contemporary capitalism is no more or less direct in its rapacious greed to ruin the world – to chew rocks and spit nails, computers, automobiles, plastic corn forks, and those stupid little cups you get to hold ketchup. God I hate those things.

Early capitalism took the most immediate and local “Commons”, and the result were the Enclosure Acts forcing land into the hands of the rich and the peasants into cities to work at factories. The Enclosures effectively removed the Commons from existence.

In North America in 1492 Europeans found 24,709,000 km^2 of “Commons”. Instead of peasants feeding and watering their livestock on it, they found several civilisations of Natives who had been using the land for tens of thousands of years. Like the peasants of the UK, they were quickly forced off their land to make way for European farmers, soon followed by Industrial machinery and shopping malls and the “beautiful new Trail Of Tears golf course”. Sometimes I wonder how much of the Enclosure Acts and their techniques were results of the North American colonial experiment.

So, Enclosures and Invasions provided land based capitalism the raw materials. Then, the metals and fossil fuels provided by the theft of the land, in turn provided the energy and resources to create much more complex social and technical organisations like the interweb thingie.

Frankly, I do not see the pollution in, say, China, as Chinese pollution, or, the exploitation of workers in China or Malaysia as Chinese or Malaysian exploitation. I see it as Western and American. This is my reasoning:

I own a factory here in Canada. We make Canadian Widgets for Canadians. Wages in Canada are not cheap and business taxes are tough here, so I relocate the factory to some banana republic, like, Oooh, Alabama where unions are weak. And set up factory there. And so the money flows from Canadian pockets to me and I send off a pile of it to Alabama to keep the Widgets flowing. Then I talk with a Chinese gentleman who tells me I can make Canadian Widgets in China for 1/10 the price, and he’ll help me set it up. Next thing you know, a bunch of Alabamians are unemployed and I have a factory going in China, stinkin’ the place up with pollution making my Canadian Widgets.

So, is it Chinese pollution? If I hadn’t been able to move the factories out of Canada, the pollution never would have left Canada, so I would argue, no, it is Canadian pollution that has been exported to China. In this way, the entire planet is rendered a “Commons” that is then cut up and divided for the sake of capital and profit. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) doesn’t make it “more direct” than before. If you were a peasant in the Lake District in 1710, and some sheriff came by saying “Sorry lad – but you’ll have to give up the farm and move to Liverpool, and if you don’t it’s off to jail with you, and you haven’t but nowt to say about it, so go along quiet like.” that’s pretty direct, IMHO, and there isn’t much more direct than that.

The creation of Immaterial Production was only possible with the energetic and materials production that is presently available. This is prima facie correct. The real problem is the irreversible transition to lower energy states and degraded materials conditions that will avail in the not so distant future. Can such a civilisation exist?

Some argue, no: we are going to go blindly off a cliff like the Reindeer on St. Matthew Island, where when they were introduced in 1944, their numbers increased increased from 29 animals to 6,000 by 1963 but then underwent a die-off the following winter to less than 50 animals from a collapse of the food supply and within a few decades had completely died out.

Most of these theorists (Hardin, Duncan, Bartlett) figure it won’t be a one year collapse, but perhaps a one or two generation (20 – 40 year) collapse beginning with the collapse of oil exports sometime in the 2010s/2020s.

The destruction of the “Commons” for the vanity of the ruling class is also seen as a driving factory in the collapse of Easter Island. The Commons in that case was the forest. They cut down all the trees and within a few generations their population collapsed into constant warfare and cannibalism.

Others, such as myself, see a die off as well, but not over a period of 40 years – more likely 100 – 200 years, depending on how stupid people are.

From my perspective, the supposed qualitative differences between production from land capital and Immaterial Production from digital infrastructure are not of real significance, nor is one more immediate and direct than the other. You still have the freedom to starve.

Freedom, by Art Bears:

After this I saw multitudes
Forced from the land,
Cleared for the wool.
Dispossessed, refugees,
Who were told
To be free –
Free to starve,
Or to Slave;
free to choose
A or B, as we offered.
To labour or die!

I saw cities explode with
This freedom, and
Covered my eyes!

I would submit that present capitalism is faced with several big problems:

1. An imminent and permanent decline in total energy production. Work requires energy. No energy, no work. no work, no profit, no profit – bye bye capitalism… The top of the elite has been well aware of this problem for a number of years, but really starting with Laherrere and Campbell’s article in March 1998 Scientific American on the imminent loss of cheap petroleum resources. Note, Matthew Simmons, a leading figure in Energy depletion analysis, was a key energy advisor to the Cheney Administration.

2. The collapse of many basic materials. Many elements in groups 10, 11, and 12 of the periodic table are especially stressed. GeoDestinies by Walter Youngquist provides more than enough info on this. My understanding is he is going to republish it with updated info soon. It’s not for happy making.

3. The inversion of Jevon’s paradox, where rather than conservation only resulting in increased use of resources and economic growth, economic growth will only be predicated on the conservation of resources at a rate greater than the loss of energy from the system. I think I have a PhD waiting for me in there somewhere…unless….

4. Even though ICT exists at the highest energy and resource level, it will be maintained long beyond its sustainability inflection point as its effects in providing data and information and pacifying billions with entertainment is worth the loss of resources, as it helps inform and temper society as civilisation skitters into what is shaping up to be a trainwreck of a transition to a sustainable society. hmmmm… that sounds more interesting….

You wrote: But they seem to me to be overly opimistic when they suggest that this means that we are finally reaching the point where the “objective conditions” for communism finally exist, or that the property form has become a “fetter” on the technological means of production, a fetter that is ready to be burst asunder.

and I agree with you that their hopes are unfounded. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was only possible when the objective conditions existed such that the reproduction of labour in a (nascent) capitalist system was possible. HOW people worked and survived and how this work was financed (both in terms of dollars and resources) had to come prior to any actual “capitalist” formations. The Romans had factories to make bread. HUGE factories that ran off water wheels. We don’t talk about Rome as some ancient capitalist state. And even if a Roman said “hey – we have factories and we are creating a new class of people enslaved to our machines and we use huge sums of money to finance this factory – let’s call ourselves capitalists!!!” They’d say he was crazy and feed him to the lions.

Same with “communism”. you’re not going to get communism out of computer networks. Networks can be used for progressive ideas, gestures, and programs, (viz Rossiter and Organized Networks) but these machines are made by giant corporations and only exist from the insane destruction of our ecosystem. When we can figure out how to make computers out of sand and sea water (two things I don’t think we’re ever going to run out of) and assembled by people who do so voluntarily for the joy of building them – no – I don’t see this as any kind of a stage for communism. Quite the contrary….


About misterwarwick

I am an Associate Professor of Media Theory, Sound Synthesis, Audio Production, and "Digital Things". I am very much involved with issues of Archives, Access To Knowledge, and the pathetic predicament collectively understood as "Civilisation". I am also a composer of electronic music and I have an online music program called "Something Completely Different". I also like to play with digital imaging. I live in Toronto. It's a nice place.
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