i know it’s been a while since i’ve posted anything and it’s going to be a while longer, but in the mean time here are incomplete notes on the BP oil spill through the lens of the essay on Estranged Labor by Marx in his 1844 manuscripts.  hopefully one day i’ll get around to finishing these.

“…the Gulf appears to be bleeding,”

so i’ve been wondering what to make of the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf.

i’ve also been engaged in my own “return to Marx” (for lack of a better phrase) that – alongside social ecology – has helped me understand, in part, the capitalist dynamics behind the spill.

much of the coverage thus far has demonstrated how the subjective decisions of BP and the other capitalist firms have contributed to the disaster.  there is, no doubt, truth to this.

but taken too far this could infer that an ecological capitalism that is benevolent towards the working class is possible.  there are similar debates being had in the European Left’s regroupment projects over whether the task is to fight capitalism, or merely its current form, viz. neoliberalism.

the task of revolutionaries will be to explain the oil spill as it relates to the broader dynamics of capitalism.  the concept of generalized commodity production – the motor behind endless production – should be explained in real social and political manifestations.

the following are notes towards that effort.

under the dominion of capital

first, from Marx’s Estranged Labor in the 1844 Manuscripts:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates…

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital. (emphasis added)

the process of alienated production under capitalism entails the physical domination of the worker (and the working class) by the needs of capital.

in a recent post over at Solidarity Christian had this to say:

We’ve been sowing the seeds of this for roughly a century, by building an economy on the use of finite fossil fuel resources, which we now must go farther and farther to find, and by under-developing the regions where we extract these mineral resources, including lax workplace and environmental safety concerns.

(from Notes on a disaster: Louisiana pays again for our economy’s petroleum addiction)

i would add that they also need to go “further and further.”  i’m not trying to mince words here, but the oil industry is forcing humanity to do more than travel greater distances and descend to greater depths to maintain profitable rates of oil extraction and production.

Christian is right:  the oil industry does have to go “farther and farther” to find, develop and extract oil.  the availability of easily extractable oil is speculated to be near an end.

this is known as the peak oil theory, but i believe there are other dimensions rooted in the need for capital accumulation.  the more capital that is produced, the more that needs to be produced in order to maintain that capital… there is an ever increasing tendency towards immiseration.

peak oil & the need for more dangerous forms of drilling; i.e. deepsea & tar sands:  http://socialistalternative.org/news/article19.php?id=1377

(George Caffentzis has offered some of the most in depth analysis of the political economy of oil.  i won’t repeat what he has done on a far superior level to anything i could attempt.)

the social and ecological cost of the BP spill has been prodigious.  this particular incident cost the lives of 11 workers, vast areas of coastal ecosystems, and the potential creation of a dead zone in the Gulf.  both human life and the natural conditions for social and natural life have been considered a necessary sacrifice for the well being of capital.

yet even more and more is still demanded…  the need to maintain oil profitability has played itself out in a vast and complex way spanning through the machinations of US Empire.  the social gravity to deliver this profitability is both great and devastating, and threatens to implode the conditions of both natural life, and the current system itself.

the oil industry is composed of billions of dollars in infrastructure, and in addition oil is central to nearly all aspects of the production process, not just transportation.  this capital requires profits and growth in order to maintain itself.  new oil fields must be continuously explored and mined.

if it cannot do this, the industry will go under and within capitalism that will mean the further destruction of our communities and families.  any massive restructuring of capital will most certainly be taken out on the backs of the working class.

a familiar example of this dynamic is how the auto industry in the US has undergone been completely eviscerated over the past 40 years.  the midwest – what is formerly the heart of auto production in the US – has been deindustrialized and robbed of all the wealth the working class has created.  Detroit and Youngstown are only shells of their former selves.  in addition, the velocity of the attacks against the UAW has been accelerated over the past 2 years in light of the current crisis.

the commitment of millions of dollars of capital’s own resources to the occupation of Iraq and the maintenance of oil regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere demonstrates the lengths to which capital will go to maintain profitability.  the massive size and scale of the US military is, by some accounts, unprecedented in world history, and requires massive revenue to fund.

the political and military rule of US Empire is tied up with it’s economic rule.  along with the need for profits, the social vision of US hegemony crafted by the rulers of US Empire includes the threat of violence, and the subordination of other national capitals.

this helps explain why Copenhagen merely reaffirmed the centrality of the dominant fossil fuel economies, and why large global subsidies for coal and other fossil fuels continue to undermine any development of sustainable energy production.

the needs of capital guide the way for US Empire.  currently, the US is lagging far behind Germany, China, Spain, India and Japan in the solar and wind power industries. jettisoning the broader fossil fuel economy would put the US in a subservient position to these other nation states.

US capital will not willingly take a back seat to competing national capitals, and thus, preserving coal and oil’s position at the center of energy production is vital.  these dynamics also lay behind Obama’s decision to expand oil drilling along the US coastal regions.

oil, the US military, political alliances and social ideologies that make US Empire a reality is both a complex web and a house of cards.  capital will always choose profits over social interest because it must.

the more capital that’s produced, the more the working class must give to maintain it.

The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself.

Marx, Estranged Labor

natural alienation

the relationship between humanity and nature – between the social world and natural world – is another dimension of this process.  Murray Bookchin has offered probably one of the best analyses of this relationship:

Human beings always remain rooted in their biological evolutionary history, which we may call “first Nature,” but they produce a characteristically human social nature of their own which we may call “second nature.” And far from being “unnatural,” human second nature is eminently a creation of organic evolution’s first nature.

Bookchin, What is Social Ecology?


[S]econd nature is the outcome of evolution in first nature and can thereby be designated as natural,

Bookchin, A Philosophical Naturalism

there a is a broad continuity with Marx here:

That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

Marx, Estranged Labor

the expanded interaction of humanity with nature has defined our species’ unique evolutionary history – our revolutionary leap beyond the rest of natural life.

In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

Marx, Estranged Labor

the ‘universal production’ of humanity – human, social nature beyond simple procreation that includes art, philosophy, literature, aesthetics – is rooted in our interaction with nature on a broader and deeper scope than other animals; ‘reproducing the whole of nature.’

this is one of the reasons i liked that movie The Road.  it portrays the collapse of our humanity as it is rooted in the collapse of life on the planet.  i think Bookchin put it best when he said something to the effect of ‘what humans need to live is a whole lot more than what seaweed needs.’

a complex ecosystem thus is necessary for human biological and social life, but capitalist production erodes this:

The point is that man is undoing the work of organic evolution. By creating vast urban agglomerations of concrete, metal, and glass, by overriding and undermining the complex, subtly organized ecosystems that constitute local differences in the natural world—in short, by replacing a highly complex organic environment with a simplified, inorganic one—man is disassembling the biotic pyramid that supported humanity for countless millennia. In the course of replacing the complex ecological relationships on which all advanced living things depend with more elementary relationships, man is steadily restoring the biosphere to a stage that will be able to support only simpler forms of life.

Bookchin, Ecology and Revolutionary Thought

Marx noted, however, that it goes beyond the preconditions of what is necessary for complex biological life, although that is certainly the case:

Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor – to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

Estranged Labor

it is from the dialectical tension between these two ‘means of life’ that Bookchin concluded, “We must emphasize, here, that the idea of dominating nature has its primary source in the domination of human by human,”

the chick cracks the egg, not the cook

most important things about 1844: no state capitalism;  not just about corruption and the subjective decisions by capitalists to cut corners (although it partly is)

not policy & subjectivity of capital

oil as a commodity;  shift in energy production can only occur as a part of capitalist restructuring — the crisis today and the roll of the working class in this process