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THE MATERIAL BASIS OF ACCUMULATION
By Stan Goff. Posted December 7, 2004.
[In this fifth and final installment of Stan Goff's "Persian Peril" series, our world crisis is analyzed in the three dimensions of resource depletion, economic injustice, and the dynamics of political power in a period of systemic breakdown. Mainstream progressives still discuss economic and social justice without discussing Peak Oil; they share with the free market economists a blissful ignorance of thermodynamic reality. But conversely, many Peak Oil discussions neglect the explosive political energies which might erupt from below during the disaster-process. People on the imperial periphery are tired of being fed to the imperial center and then absorbing its waste. And the working poor who form the majority in the imperial center are likely to get irked when the economy tanks. US petro-militarism is ill-equipped to prevent the political crises its masters fear, at home and abroad. We shall see. - JAH]
The Material Basis of Accumulation
© Copyright 2004, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All Rights Reserved. May be reprinted, distributed or posted on an Internet web site for non-profit purposes only.
There is nothing so blinding as success. And the United States has had its fair share of success in the past 200 years. Success has the vicious consequence that it seems to breed almost inevitably the conviction that it will necessarily continue. Success is a poor guide to wise policy. Failure at least often leads to reflection; success seldom does.
[R]ather than a historical stage, industrial capitalism should be understood as a functional specialization within a larger field of accumulative strategies. Rosa Luxemburg was probably the first to see the full implications of this. Still today, industrial capitalism is very far from the universal condition of humankind, but rather a privileged activity, the existence of which would be unthinkable without various other modes of transferring surpluses of labor and resources from peripheral sectors to centers of accumulation at different spatial scales.
-Alf Hornborg,"The Power of the Machine - Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment," 2001.
Why Iraq and now Iran?
There is clearly a connection between the current war in Southwest Asia and petroleum, but there is a great deal of confusion about the character of that connection. The easiest error to dispense with is that the US is simply stealing the oil.
The US does not need to steal oil. Current international arrangements give the US access to exorbitant quantities of oil at cut-rate prices. US payments for oil, given the US ability to export its crises through petrodollar recycling, are already so low in their net impact on the US economy that oil is virtually an imperial tribute. There is no nation that will refuse to sell oil, moreover, to the biggest consumer market in the world.
Another misapprehension is that the war is to protect the dollar denomination of oil from a Euro-challenge. But so long as Europe itself is unwilling to sell the dollar short - thereby wiping out billions of dollars of monetary value in their own currency reserves - then the Euro can never be more than a satellite currency. Certainly, other nations are looking to diversify their reserve holdings into a dollar-Euro mix, but that does not resolve in any fundamental way the game of "chicken" that the US can continue to play with its printing presses.
Control over the largest patch of oil, on the other hand, is leverage against all competitors who rely on imported oil. That was always Europe and Japan. And since the 1980s, it is increasingly China.
Military power is the only card the US has to play in this new Great Game. Forgive the paternalistic analogy that emphasizes the imperial standpoint, but as any parent knows, when we must resort to force with our children, it is an indication that all other measures have failed.
They are not expanding their power. They are trying to manage their decline. The violence of that management is a reflection of the depth of the crisis, and the question of how to manage that decline goes to the heart of the struggle developing between the neocons and the technocrats.
The leverage that petroleum gives over the rest of the over-developed world, as well as nuclear Russia and industrializing China is absolutely and inescapably logical from a strictly mechanistic, military point of view. This is the reason that Southwest Asia is now the epicenter of world crisis.
But there is another aspect to the military solution, and that is that the rest of the world, which - as key resources demonstrate their geological and thermodynamic limitations - is competing for this diminishing material base even as it sinks further into geo-economic penury.
As the number of human beings actively involved in the process of valorizing the total global capital shrinks, leaving in its wake billions of human beings who are now superfluous as either producers or consumers to the accumulation process, the old post-war myth of development that was held like a carrot in front of the under-developed nations has been shattered.
There is now a largely urbanized, largely young, teeming mass around the planet that must - by the logic of the market - be expelled and eventually exterminated for the center of the center, the US, to continue to accumulate. Marx's "reserve army of labor" has grown into a giant mass of superfluous (to the market, except as a drag on accumulation) people.
Ecologists now tell us that it would take three additional Earths to find the resources necessary to bring the whole world up to the technological standard of consumption now extant in the United States. Petroleum is only one of those resources, but it is a resource unlike other material resources, because it has trapped within it a concentrated, portable form of energy that is unmatched and unmatchable in the world. It has become the thermodynamic lifeblood of industrial capitalism, and without it the entire system will fall into utter and ruinous collapse.
The American ruling class is perfectly aware of this, and they are also aware that their power is ultimately political - that the ruination of the masses in the United States will lead to an upheaval that could undermine or even end that power. So they are playing a game of retrenchment. This is not the game of the strong, but the game of a desperately weak system.
In 1945, the US share of global product was 50%. It is half of that now. The US now imports 60% of its petroleum. The American trade deficit is half a trillion dollars. The federal debt is over $6 trillion, 60% of GDP. In 1980, that figure was $1 trillion, or 33% of GDP. My own hypothesis is not complicated, once the question of dollar hegemony is understood. As the monetary position of US power is continually weakened by debt and overhang, the existing capital accumulation regime is increasingly obliged to force a change on the world so it will accept yet another restructuring, just as Nixon forced the last restructuring on his reluctant allies. There are two aspects to this enforcement - the industrialized metropoles ("where the money is") and the periphery/ semi-periphery, where this mass of superfluous people is now a drag anchor on continued accumulation. This drag, from the standpoint of the accumulation regime, must be systematically cut loose.
There is an international class war going on, and one reason we only see the military dimension of it is that we only look at the economic indices. This tells the story of "unequal exchange" in the realm of money, but it does not explain what is happening in the material substrates of the system, nor does it explain why petroleum in particular is unlike other commodities.
This article has briefly described the process of accumulation on the monetary surface, where a symbolic or "fictional" value can create turbulence at the interface of monetary value and production - the bubble phenomenon.
I have also alluded to the social relations concealed beneath that surface, alluding to the labor-theories of value pioneered by 19th Century thinkers like David Ricardo and Karl Marx, showing how monetary value is "added" to products in the transformation from "raw material" to finished product. I have further alluded, though not explicitly, to the fact that labor in the politically subjugated periphery of the world system "trades" at a lower rate of monetary exchange than it does in the industrial metropoles - what some theorists refer to as unequal exchange.
In every case, we are dealing with commodities as an output, which ignores the role of hydrocarbons - particularly oil - as an input, and not merely an input of raw materials like we get from a quarry or a forest. I am speaking of a thermodynamic input.
Alf Hornborg notes that "Marxist theories of imperialism, although acutely aware of global exploitation, have strangely circumambulated their own implications for our understanding of industrial technology itself."
A factory does not grow out of subterranean ore deposits like a mushroom; it can reproduce itself only by exchanging its output of products for a continuous input of specific substances like fuels and raw materials. If this structure is generalized on a global scale, the secret of industrialism can be seen not so much as a matter of applying increasingly intensive technology to a certain piece of land, as of "realizing" the industrial products on a global market at exchange rates that guarantee the industrialized sectors a continuous negentropic buildup. The industrial technomass cannot subsist by itself… but depends on the existence of non-industrial sectors where the price of… fuels, raw materials, and the labor to extract them is so much lower that such exchange rates can be maintained.
So we are back to Luxemburg's thesis.
But Hornborg is going a step further here than the Marxists. He is pointing out that industrialism - inextricable from capitalism as an historical process - is every bit as much a social relation as Marxian "profit." The notion here is that technology is not culturally neutral, but that technology itself represents a socially constructed form of inequality. This is a very different proposition from orthodox Marxism, which has implied that industrial technology might be placed under the control of a non-capitalist politico-economic regime and transformed into an agent of equality. In fact, it is a direct challenge to that idea.
He bases that challenge on physical laws, beginning with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Ergo, his use of the arcane term "negentropy." Hornborg makes the case that the drawbacks of industrial technology are not "circumstantial" but "intrinsic."
Negentropy is shorthand for negative entropy; entropy is the tendency of every system in the universe - including the universe itself - to run towards disorder. Energy which is organized and available for work is always being degraded into less organized forms of energy; the least-organized is heat - random molecular motion. When a human being eats 500 calories concentrated in a banana split, then runs out to do her day's work, that 500 calories is dissipated into the air around her as heat, no longer concentrated in a form available for work (moving things). Hornborg is speaking of more than heat, but I will focus on energy because it is central to this discussion and it is a good general analog for the larger process Hornborg describes.
Globally hypertrophied capitalism - imperialism - is fundamentally characterized by expansion, metaphorically designated "growth." Luxemburg pointed out that one nation could not sustain this expansion without exceeding its own borders, because both resources and population were finite. Continuous expansion in a finite world is not possible.
While she was concentrating on the materio-economic limits on the expansion of value, Hornborg has turned his attention on the energetic limits of expansion. And instead of the limits imposed by a political boundary - the state - he is looking at the planetary constraints of the biosphere.
When we look at the issue of economic "productivity," a term used by economists to denote how much product one can squeeze out of how much time they are paying for from workers, energy inputs are the single most important variable in the massive increase of "productive" output in the last 200 years. We have already alluded to the problem with technology for capitalists, that it erodes the margin of "surplus" value that constitutes (by the Marxian definition) profit, and eventually forces them to run all over the planet looking for more destitute workers to accept shittier wages. The introduction of fossil energy to the industrial process became an immense "force magnifier" for production, mobilizing heat for work that massively outstripped the ability of any human or animal.
The development of this technology was not outside history. It was developed with "growth" as the impetus, and thoroughly embedded in the capitalist accumulation process. The first factories were designed expressly to discipline the worker to a rate of output, by subordinating that worker to the machine.
When we view industrial technology locally (or sectorally), we see increased output, and as the ability ultimately to appropriate space and time (a very important aspect of class). I jump in my Chevrolet, turn the key, put it in Drive, and I can travel to my friends' house 25 miles away in half an hour. Without that technology - burning fossil energy that has been concentrated for millions of years, by the way - the trip one-way would have taken me all day, and when I got there I would have been too tired to qualify as good company.
But viewed globally, we can use this metaphor of growth in an entirely different way, which Hornborg does. Hornborg examines the world system from the point of view of its energetic flows, in much the same way we might examine the "growth" of an organism.
As indicated above in the banana split example, an organism is a "dissipative structure": in the process of reproducing itself it dissipates order, running down the organized energy of complex chemical bonds in the bananas until only heat remains - until the heat, too, is dispersed. Hornborg looks at highly technological societies - or industrialized metropoles - in the same way: as giant concentrations of technomass that require constant inputs to maintain themselves. Their primary thermodynamic inputs are hydrocarbons, the primary biomass energy inputs are food for cheap labor (embodying 10 calories of fossil fuel in every calorie of food), and the primary material inputs are raw materials. In tracing the energetic flows, he notes that there is an inverse relationship between monetary value and negentropy. The oil in the Persian Gulf leaves there with a very high potential for doing work. It flows to one of these giant agglomerations of technomass like New York or Tokyo, where it is then turned into, simultaneously, profit in the productive process and useless dissipated heat.
These technomass concentrations only "grow" by demanding ever higher, constant inputs of energy concentrates. One very interesting statistic in this regard, even more stark in its demonstration of international inequality than monetary figures, is the per capita energy consumption of different countries. For a quick regional peek, go to http://www.grida.no/geo2000/english/i5a.htm . Combining that with a map that shows where oil exports originate and end (the annual BP statistical review available on-line has a good one at
http://www.bp.com/genericarticle.do?categoryId=111&contentId=2004184 ) gives an astonishingly clear account of the current world system.
The typical Malthusian accounts of oil depletion found on sites like www.dieoff.org and www.peakoil.org provide important empirical accounts of the perils we face as fossil energy is depleted, but they provide only superficial accounts of the social and political forces that constitute the world system. This empiricism that looks at global population trends and compares them to global fossil energy extraction trends implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) suggests that the train wreck of the end-of-oil is biologically determined - a direct outgrowth of something called "human nature." This can lead the Malthusian perspective into both simplification that obscures the socio-cultural bases of the way we use energy and to some profoundly racist notions that the problem is fundamentally one of brown people reproducing too quickly.
Hornborg's method of tracing energy flows demonstrates how the industrial capitalist centers - these vast technomass concentrations that can actually be seen now from satellites - suck in fossil energy (thermodynamically, "order") from across the planet and draw it into themselves, where it is dissipated. In the case of oil, capitalism's chronic resource-drawdown has liquidated half the world's economically-extractible supply in just over a century, though it was millions of years in the making. This facilitates the extraction of other "orders" (raw materials and labor) from other regions, which because they are politically powerless also become the global toilets for the detritus of industrial capitalism.
This is the basis of the environmental justice movement: recognition that this "disorder" is being shipped away from the rich and onto the poor.
"Growth" accelerates this process, not just of depletion, but of inequality, and it is not correctable so long as there is a growth economy. Contrary to the unsubstantiated fantasies of a handful of "alternative" energy wonks, the present system categorically cannot carry on as is (as a growth economy - capitalism) without petroleum. Energy is a real thing, and there is quite simply no replacement for petroleum for energy concentration, portability, and flexibility of application. Not in this biosphere, visions of growing alcohol-producing sugar beets across the whole state of Texas notwithstanding.
Industrialism and capitalism are inextricable, and they are a single system that, like an introduced species on an island, will consume the material basis of its own continued existence. Hornborg is describing, by adopting the organism-metaphor of "growth," the actual metabolism of the world system. Like a beast that grows ever larger, even as it consumes its own food base, the larger it gets (look at the explosive growth of mega-cities), the faster the general rate of consumption becomes just to sustain it.
This is the material basis of the inevitable conflict between the United States and China. If current energy-demand trends in the two countries continue, the earth's capacity to render up the black gold will be exhausted within 25 years. Something has got to give.
The Emotions Matter
Don't ignore the people.
One of the key issues that the technocrats have with the neocons is their demonstrated ignorance of the cultures they aim to conquer. They seem to actually relish this ignorance, as if the culture doesn't matter when we have the cluster bombs. Iraq should have disabused them of this bone-headedness, but if the threatening noises directed at Iran are any indication, it hasn't.
The weird apparent plot to unleash an Iranian-dissident armed resistance against Iran, using the Mujahadeen e Khalq (MEK) of all people, whom the US itself has placed on its terrorist organization list, probably qualifies as a higher degree of self-delusion than even the intrepid Ahmad Chalabi was able to midwife at the Defense Policy Board.
Iranian politics is complex. From the US media that always attempts to reduce every situation to categories appropriate to the attention span of a trout, we hear a tale of clerics versus reformers. But the political scene is far more diverse than that, and the extreme pluralism contained within that diversity does not now incline the Iranians to abandon political stability, even if lurid Western headlines do occasionally declare that Iran is "sitting on a time bomb." Sitting on journalistic bombast is closer to the mark.
The recent resurgence of clerical forces in Iran was assisted by the belligerence of the US, but it has not been a return to the rule of the older clerical establishment. Younger clerics, who cling to the centrality of Islamic law like their predecessors, recognize that the general dissatisfaction of the Iranian public with the "reformists" represented by Khatimi was with their inability to get things done - particularly putting an economic "modernization" agenda on track. Older clerics were positively negligent in economic affairs, where the younger clerical forces are aggressively pursing deals with India, Azerbaijan, and Russia to get an economic development program going again. Among the non-clerical and anti-clerical forces, there is a division between the technocrats who want economic liberalization (privatization) and the nationalistic left that is resisting this agenda. Each of these is oriented to a particular class-and-age base, each is itself factionalized, and no one sector has the popular power on its own to exercise any form of political hegemony. For this reason, no sector is willing to see a destabilization when the outcome would be completely unpredictable. Instead, there is a kind of pendulum effect between clerical and secular forces that inevitably, if slowly, swings further away from the clerics, even if that pendulum is for the moment leaning their way.
Strategically, Iran saw the fall of Saddam Hussein as a positive, and even hoped for a rapprochement with the US, as did many American capitalists who desperately want the trade restrictions lifted so they can sell Iran food and join Iran in the oil business. But the Zionists within the administration have prevailed in convincing George W. Bush that Iran is part of an "axis of evil," reinforced by the insistence of Ariel Sharon that Iran be the US second regime-change target.
Now Iran is looking with consternation at the US attempt to establish a puppet-Iraq as the new regional hegemon (which is a plan falling apart), and at the autonomous aspirations of the Kurds. Alarm at the aggressive rhetoric of the Bush administration and Israel led directly to the clerical reassertion of power and to the resumption of nuclear research. After all, Iranians say, the US and Israel have nuclear weapons, why shouldn't we?
It's actually a fair question. The Iranians are also buying Euros.
Iran is not now politically unstable, and an attack - even a proxy attack - against Iran could further consolidate pan-Islamic solidarity based on the justifiable perception that this is an attack against Islam. Remember the 60% of Iraq is Shia, so the political war between the secular Arab Saddam and the clerical Persian Khomeini - in the face of Saddam's removal and the cyclic but steady erosion of the political power of Iran's clerical establishment - is rapidly becoming an historical dead letter. What has grown up in its place is a nascent pan-Islamic resistance - symbolically perceived as a struggle against a Zionist-Anglo-American enemy, growing out of the very real imperial and expansionist history of these three political actors in the region. This resistance will not facilitate deeper entrenchment of the US military. On the contrary, it will turn it into an even deeper politico-military quagmire. More importantly, it has a huge potential to destabilize the puppet regime in Saudi Arabia, with the largest remaining oil pool on the planet.
This, paradoxically, is the goal of Osama bin Laden, and it is now closer to being fulfilled than he might have dreamed five years ago.
Already, oil price escalation is threatening Bush's equity-loan recovery with inflation that corresponds to a second recessive dip in early 2005… the dreaded lose-lose combination of stagnation and inflation that was termed "stagflation" in the 1970s. This anecdotal crisis - if it happens - can still be seen against the backdrop of the larger systemic crisis of profit described above.
The "exterminist" process of jettisoning global surplus population, it has to be noted, will not be abrupt or direct. Instead it is a process of accretion, depending on withdrawal, isolation, and neglect, manifesting itself in pandemics, shortened life spans, eco-catastrophes, and the wars of social disintegration. We are seeing the outlines of this process most vividly now in Africa. This process is not happening in one apocalyptic movement, but episodically.
This process represents the shrinkage of the material basis of global accumulation, and it is this we have to understand to see into the mind of the technocrats - their most immediate fear. If this process is unmediated, even accelerated in one grandiose grab as the neocons are now attempting, this accelerates not only the requirement to speed up the transfer of disorder to the peripheries - with its attendant political destabilization and resistance - it hastens the shifting of this burden onto the population of the United States, upon whom the US ruling class' political stability rests.
It is notable that in this election year, the primary appeal of the Democratic Party - that bureaucratized institutional vehicle for the federalist technocrats - is that their patrician presidential candidate is not George W. Bush. The subtext of this appeal is a fear of political polarization in the United States in the face of the inexorable decline in US living standards. These same polarities were catalyzed in the 1960s, when an economically ruinous war polarized an American society that was seeing the end of the post WWII consumer bash.
The Democrats are constitutionally incapable of describing the crisis I am describing here. I am guilty of calling them cowards in polemics, but the reality is that this is not cowardice but plain, garden-variety self interest. Their fear of the neocons is not that the neocons will hurt brown people half a planet away. They have shown themselves to be equally willing to raise body counts. Bill Clinton presided over sanctions that killed far more Iraqis than Bush's little military fiasco. Their fear is that the kinds of questions that are raised in the public mind by the bull-in-a-china-shop methods of the neocons might lead significant sections of that American public to seek out genuine answers, then act on them with social upheavals.
So, by God, let's get them an election… fast!
This justifiable Democrat fear of domestic social polarization was already in evidence when the Democrats lay down before the Republican judicial fiat that decided the 2000 General Election. Rather than provoke a Constitutional crisis that might awaken a whole host of social resentments and shake the body politic out of its virtuous political inertia, they stood down the base within their own party. Who can forget the most astonishing scene in Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, when Al Gore presided over a Congress wherein every Democrat who challenged the election result - mostly African American legislators incensed at the inattention to the Jim Crow tactics employed by the State of Florida - was summarily shut down, and none too politely either, by Gore himself.
This is the nightmare Brzezinski is trying to avoid: a domestic polarization that might result in an upsurge of grassroots agitation. This is the first danger, not the last, to the dominant class in our present conjuncture. These technocrats are alarmed that the neocons are firing their artillery at a distant target, which might wake up the hordes right inside the perimeter.
Beyond that domestic "perimeter," of course, there is a very real destruction of the all-important myth of American military invincibility.
It is not only the armed resistance of Iraq that is making a material contribution to the erosion of US military power. The vast unpopularity in the Philippines of the Iraq war has forced the removal of Filipinos from Iraq, and driven the normally compliant Filipino government to defend its decision against the Australian government. This decision - defying the US - was not undertaken lightly by the Arroyo government, dependent as it is upon the US for its very existence. This is a successful assertion of Filipino popular will against the US and against the Arroyo dependency.
The same thing was true in Turkey in the run-up to the March 2003 ground offensive, when, in a stunning defeat for the Bush administration, the newly elected Turkish parliament - facing a massive Turkish anti-war movement - narrowly denied the United States military its northern front for the March ground offensive against Iraq.
The habit of thought of the powerful is to focus on others who are powerful, and to ignore the masses. When they do see the masses in action, they tend to judge but not interpret.
Last April we first saw the images of people in Fallujah dragging the charred corpses of four mercenaries out of burning vehicles and taking turns pummeling the blackened cadavers with shovels and stones, of dragging the bodies down the street then stringing them up in a grotesque display on a bridge.
How many people who saw that wondered where that rage came from? Did they really believe that people in Fallujah are simply savages who would engage in this post-mortem mutilation for entertainment?
We have since learned, those of us who are paying attention, that Fallujans had been subjected to obscene disrespect and violence by American troops since the beginning of the operation in March 2003, and that many of those who vented their spleens on these roasted corpses had lost family members and friends.
The Abu Ghraib photos gave us a glimpse of the kind of humiliation that Iraqis, many of them simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, were subjected to as the colonial dominator-mentality flowered among the occupying troops.
This humiliation is now being borne collectively, and the rage we witnessed in the streets of Fallujah is simmering just under the surface of a whole region that has just about had enough.
* * *
Where the fall will begin is hard to say. Will it be the deflationary avalanche that is building under the mountain of debt? Will it be from a polarized America that takes it back to the streets? Will it be in the Zulu Dawn of some military debacle? Or will it be in a nuclear strike approved by the Defense Policy Board? Or will it come as the sum of climate change, the end of oil, the salinization of arable land, the destruction of fisheries, as civilization collapses, as T.S. Eliot expected, "not with a bang but with a whimper"?
We don't know, and neither do the technocrats. They just have enough sense to be alarmed. They do not however have the power to prevent it, only to alter slightly the direction from which it will come.
I have only one thing to say to the Bush administration's fantasy of regime-changing Iran.
Bring it on.
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