Reply To: Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology

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Markus # Posted on December 18, 2014 at 14:53

Markus Nyström
Complementary task for seminar 2, 17 february 2013, Jason Moore

Moore argues that capitalism as we know it may very well crumble within the next few decades. I believe neoliberalism, as the over-arching ideological framework for contemorary capitalism, will come to crumble or change long before that and that this change might already have started. In this paper I present some of my thoughts towards this “whatever-comes-next” as I try to summerize the literature and the written reflections of my colleagues.
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Reading Moore’s articles and the reflections from the saminar, I can’t help thinking that the “four cheaps” actually might have been five. If food, energy, natural resources and labor has traditionally been the “four cheaps”, the four frontiers of capital that need to be expanded in order for further capital accumulation to be possible, then finincialization – crucial to neoliberalism – could be regarded as a fifth cheap, a fifth frontier to expand. Financialization, as I understand it, is really the symbolic or abstract side of economics, not connected to real production or consumption, but founded on the symbolic properties of economics. A frontier of the symbolic, so to speak, the increase of finincialization within neoliberal economics seems to me like a final, daring attempt to bloat the symbols rather than the products of capitalism into obcene proportions and forms in order to allow capital to accumulate further.
I see this in the field I am studying with my master thesis, namely the mining industry in Sweden. Over the last few years, there has been around a thousand active prospecting permits issued by the Swedish Mining Inspectorate. At the same time, only around 15 mines are in operation. Many of the places where prospectors have permits to explore will never be turned into mining operations, not (only) because the bedrock does not contain sufficiently high levels of whatever minerals the prospector is looking for, but because the companies in this business are not really interested in developing the deposits at all. What they are interested in is to bloat the value of shares by artificially increasing the anticipation of the potential wealth of a (theoretical) mine. The Swedish mining industry is an interesting example where something so concrete as mining – one of the four cheaps (raw materials) – has been financialized to the point where the actual mining is not what produces most growth in the industry. It is the speculation, the anticipation, the potential and the symbolic that are truelly growing. This at the same time as the cumbersome activity of actually procuring minerals is subject to ever stronger indications of decreasing marginal returns.
Moore argues that the 2008 economic crisis was in fact a “signal crisis” for neoliberalism’s demise. According to Anna Shoemaker, Moore also argued in the seminar that “capitalism is done for”, that the next few decades will be a period of collapse of the the four cheaps and thus of capitalism. Since capitalism is, according to Moore, a “world-ecology”, this would necessarily mean that the coming decades will entail a collapse of the capitalist approach of deviding culture from nature.
Whenever I come across lecturers or writers talking about neoliberalism, I think of a lecture a attended many years ago by Sverker Gustavsson, Professor Emeritus in Government studies at Uppsala university. He talked about the period after WWII in Europe as divided in two – first “l’or trente”, the “golden thirty”, when social democratic ideas were prevailing. Large infrastructure projects were launched around Europe, payed through public means, which lay the groundwork for the modern welfare state. Then came the neoliberal era, initiated by Thatcher and Reagan and the oil crisis in the 1970’s. The public wealth built up during the previous thirty years was sold out more and more, free trade and financialization, and the state turned from an institution which through ideological debates governed the economy and society to an institution which had as its primery role to facilitate a liberal economics. (This is why political debates today [in Sweden at least] are more about throwing numbers and statistics at each other rather than an ideological dialogue where different worldviews and perspectives on humanity are discussed).
Now that the neoliberal paradigm, just like the “golden thirty”, is drawing close to thirty years old, is there something new coming? If so, what?
I believe something new has probably already come. The idea that human society is divorced from ecology – the Cartesian divide, the fake dichotomy of nature/culture – has been questioned in influential circles for quite some time, but the extent to which this critique has taken hold of the general society is something I believe has increased a lot over the last few years. From my very limited perspective and subjective experience, I distinctly get the feeling that fewer and fewer actually buy into the idea that we can solve the environmental crises by investing more into the structures that lead to the crises in the first place – i.e. that technology and markets can solve that which obviously is a crisis of technology and markets. Criticizing the idea of endless growth is commonplace today (especially, perhaps, since the publication of Tim Jackson’s bestseller Prosperity Without Growth). Again, an example from the mining industry might help clarify, as the ministers of commerse and environment in Sweden published a debate article claiming that we need more mines in order to build environmentally friendly technologies so that our society can be sustainable.1 It is my understanding and experience that twenty years ago, or indeed just ten or five years ago, most people would agree and understand this argument. But today, I think most Swedish people understand the logical gap in the reasoning: in order to “save the environment” with the help of green technology, we need to destroy the environment through mining. I do believe there is a deeper understanding today generally of the “world-ecology” property of modern capitalism, that the dichotomy of nature/culture (or even more to the point: nature/economy) is flawed and fake.
These are of course just my own observations, made from my own perspective, but I believe this is where whatever-comes-next takes its beginning. As much as the welfare state got the blame when neoliberal ideas started to flourish in the 1970’s, so too will the hallmark of neoliberalism – the faith in and relentless persuit of exponential growth, at any cost – be criticized. Even though neoliberalism has done a great job of including “green” ideals – green modernism – into the ideology, I can’t imagine that the flawed premise of green modernism (endless growth on a finite planet) will be able to withstand critical debate for very long as the global economy heads into new and prolonged crises.
Moore’s holistic perspective on capitalism, that it is a “world-ecology”, not just a social or economic system, is intriguing to me. It reminds me of what Alf Hornborg argues political ecology is about, namely to erase the disciplinary barriers between environment, economy and technology, and instead regard the whole thing as one system. Indeed, they seem to both share origins in Wallerstein’s world-system theory and, deeper still, a Marxist approach.
As such, I wonder if whatever-comes-next will also question other dichotomies and ideas advanced by neoliberalism, in particular neoliberal conceptions of individualism and competition as the natural state of human existence rather than collectives and collaboration. Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), argued that the dramatic increase in mental health problems in western society is regarded as wrongly tuned chemical balances in the brain of the individual rather than an effect of a soceity which makes people sick. Will this rampant individualistic perspective also be put into question? Fisher morover argues that bureaucracy has increased enormously in the neoliberal era, not decreased as promised, because of increased needs to monitor individual performance, etcetera. Fisher argues that here lies a real ground for questioning the one thing neoliberalism usually claims it really does achieve: efficiency. Will that too come under scrutiny as the four cheaps start to crumble and societies need to restructure and reorganize?
In my ears, this all sound rather promising, but there are of course huge risks. The increase in neofascist movements in Europe today is no small matter. If this movement is left unchallenged to define problems and solutions as capitalism starts to crumble (like Moore suggests it will), an incredably dark period could very well come to pass.