Jones on crisis I

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Tue Oct 20 12:18:25 PDT 1998

[Lou Proyect forwarded this but it bounced for excessive length.]

Date: Tue, 20 Oct 1998 15:04:07 -0400 From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> Subject: Mark Jones on the world crisis

(Mark is temporarily off LBO-talk and Marxism mailing-lists. He is also permanently off PEN-L, don't ask me why. I thought that this post which just appeared on the leninist-international mailing list, which he moderates, would be interesting to others. I also passed Greg Nowell's comments on the Barrons editorial about oil shortages, as well as the editorial, on to him.)

The root causes of the world crisis lie within the sphere of production as well as circulation. In a sense the entire history of industrial capitalism is a history of the deployment of fossil fuels and machinery to substitute for muscle power and biomass energy; and the trajectory of rising social productivity can be plotted on a graph whose vertical axis is labelled 'hydrogen' and whose horizontal axis is labelled, 'carbon'. Increasing productivity means decreasing the carbon consumed in fuel energy and increasing the proportion of hydrogen. There is an imperative about this, far beyond the requirements of mere competition which force capitalists to take the value out of products, primarily by reducing material, energy and labour inputs. The deeper imperative, inscribed at the level of the mode of production, is intimately linked to the historical destiny and fate of capitalism. For if the process of 'dematerialisation' is insufficiently rapid, the system runs into increasing entropic difficulties: roadblocks assail its attempts to restart and renew cycles of accumulation. The present growing disintegration, systemic breakdown and anarchy within world capitalism are symptomatic not so much of disorders within the sphere of circulation as of ineradicable problems arising within production itself. The crises within circulation are only manifestations of a deeper malaise resulting from the long-term slow-down in rates of productivity growth, themselves arising from the growing technical difficulty of 'decarbonising' energy systems and dematerialising production, and the growing loss of energy-efficiency within the global energy system. This is true despite the vaunted improvements in energy production especially in oil and gas expro, and in the equally vaunted 'virtualisation' of production and delinking of energy inputs to material outputs.

The next century is billed as the 'hydrogen' century, when carbon will at last be effectively excluded from the energy cycle, and humankind at last 'freed' from its dependence on carbon-laden fossil fuels. Like a cat in a sack, capitalism tries to squirm free of its difficulties, and it is said that once the transition to full hydrogen systems is achieved a new productive cornucopia will be realised and capitalism will have immortalised itself, thus escaping the baleful destiny we Marxists have allotted it. It will be a Houdini-like escape, from the pressing toils of massive population increases, growing environmental devastation, economic collapse, disintegration of the world market, and the fearsome consequences of global warming. But the optimists take comfort from the prehistory of capitalism's escapes, its seemingly endless ability to renew its socio-technical basis.

Unfortunately, this optimism is based on illusion. The 'hydrogen' world of decarbonised energy systems is a chimera. And if it WERE to be achieved, it would be at the price of the final hypertrophy of capitalist commodity production, the final extrusion of value from the product. As we know, the absence of value makes valorisation impossible. Paradoxically, the present crisis is simultaneously a crisis of both over-production and under-production of capital. Capital is copiously available, but can find few profitable outlets. At the same time, it is self-evident that in every country outside the metropoles capital is not abundant, it is extremely scarce, and the mass of humankind is condemned by its absence to grinding poverty. World capitalism is hog-tied as much by its previous successes as its failures. Valorisation has been slowed from a flood to a turgid trickle because the values of inputs has been relentless whittled away over many decades. This explains the superabundance of idled surplus capital. The precocious success of 'decarbonisation' and dematerialisation has produced this outcome, one where the greatest reserve army of labour in history -- more than half of humankind: confronts the greatest accumulation of productive power known to history, across a social nomansland which leaves each inaccessible to the other and has resulted in locking the majority of humankind out of the benefits of production and indeed out of society and in a sense, out of history.

Any real new upswing or serious resumption of production (I do not mean the kind of illusory boomlets which always occur within real depressions, and did for example throughout the 1930s, when the 'turning of the corner' was monotonously proclaimed and always proven wrong within days or weeks) is certain to be short-lived since it must press against the absolute limit of valorisation inscribed within the mode of production itself, and which history has now as it were brought to the surface.

A new phase of devastatingly-powerful positive-feedback loops has begun, a chain reaction in which all the negative tendencies of crisis reinforce and intensify each other, and in which the economic crisis must increasingly become a political one ('politics is the concentrated expression of economics': Lenin).

The immediate future is therefore going to be one in which the growing dislocation in the world system, the fragmentation of world-capitalism, its loss of functional unity, the collapse of the world market and of the integrity of its unifying institutions -- will all continue to accelerate. All these phenomena are of course, also crises of US imperial hegemony. It was already clear more than a year ago that the Asia meltdown was in reality a crisis of dollar suzerainty and ultimately of US hegemony, and this was so despite the triumphalism of Wall Street which rushed its carpet baggers to Asian capitals to buy up assets at firesale prices.

From the point of view of marxian value theory, capitalism's chronic and deepening energy crisis appears as a term in the general equation of capitalist accumulation, in which the tendency of the rate of profit to fall itself produces a growing and unusable reserve army of labour, a chronic crisis of rising organic composition, and an inability to transform the historically-endowed technical composition of capital. Gross facts determine capitalism's complete inability to ever incoporate the bulk of humankind into its orbit. For example, in the west there is an existing infrastructure of 50 tonnes of steel per capita, more than 10 times that in the third world peripheries: to bring the Third World to the same gross level would require increasing world annual steel production from the present level of 700m tonnes p.a. to more than one billion tonnes p.a. and sustaining that level of production for more than a hundred years. This will not happen and this single fact by itself explains why 'development' is a hoax.

Marx definitely assumed that all terms of the equation were internally satisfied -- that is, if capitalism 'detected' a secular energy-crisis, or a crisis in any other input, its own laws of motion would act to counter it. Therefore the argument advanced by Jean-Claude Debeir, Jean-Paul Deléage and Daniel Hémery is not a marxist one, it is Ricardian/physiocratic. However, criticising the argument may make it useful for our purposes.

They argue that energy entropy overrides all the other capitalist laws of motion, but this is very far from being a new idea, it had a certain popularity in the 30s and again in the 50s, but it always leads into the shallows of physicalist, Leontiev-style input-output theories of capitalist crisis and in general was comprehensively criticised by Marx within his general critical reduction of ricardianism.

Marx's object of analysis is the laws of motion of capitalist reproduction in their totality, and he concluded that there is a historical limit to capitalism and that this mode of production will be superseded by ANOTHER, with an entirely different social AND MATERIAL basis. Such a conclusion cannot be derived from the entropy thesis of capitalism's historical limit, nor does that offer anything more than a speculative insight into the kind of sustainable social ecology which must come after capitalism.

Debeir, Deléage and Hémery are wrong in positing the notion of an overarching social law of entropy. And their insistence on making what is actually an externality into a determinant of theory, reduces theory iutself to arbitrariness and actually takes away all certainty. Unlike Marxism, this theory of energy-entropy may not result in the disappearance of capitalism at all, may even help 'immortalise' it. This also makes it necessary to criticise the theory of energy-entropy as a social limit.

A year ago, Lou Proyect and myself discussed "In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization through the Ages", by Jean-Claude Debeir, Jean-Paul Deléage and Daniel Hémery, Zed Press, 1986

After we exchanged postings, I wrote privately to Deleage and engaged him in a fruitful dialogue which I shall post in some form at a later date.

Here is Lou Proyect's original posting about Deleage et al followed by an extract from the book (posted first in November 1997):

Recent reading has convinced me that it is time to reconsider dialectical materialism, the unjustly maligned attempt by Marx and Engels to provide a unified analysis of society and nature. Dialectical materialism has gotten a bad reputation from its use in Soviet apologetics, but, despite this, an updated version can provide insights into the environmental crisis that historical materialism simply can not.

Jean-Guy Vaillancourt's essay "Marx and Ecology: More Benedictine than Franciscan" is contained in the collection "The Greening of Marxism" (Guilford, 1996) raises this question in a most perceptive way. (By the way, there's an essay by this guy named Michael Perelman titled "Marx and Resource Scarcity" in there as well. It's pretty gosh-darned good.)

Vaillancourt singles out Engels's "Anti-Duhring" and the "Dialectics of Nature" for special consideration since they are more directly concerned with nature and ecology than any of the previous writings of Marx and Engels. They are also considered bulwarks of dialectical materialist thought. The "Dialectics of Nature" contains the famous chapter "The Role of Work in Transforming Ape into Man."

Most people are quite familiar with the paragraph that describes how the "conquest" of nature can have unexpected results:

"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature -- but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly."

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