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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.

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keeping with the questions of possibilies (see the previous post), George Caffentiz pubished the following essay in turbulence on the implications of shifting towards a ‘green energy’ economy.

he notes that the last time there was a major shift in energy production in the US it was during Roosevelt’s presidency, but it was neither simple nor benign.  the shift towards natural gas and oil was a move to break the minor’s union, a powerful force in the CIO.  this was a defeat of working class power, and marked the accelerated development of state capitalism.

in my head the ability to shift away from an oil energy economy will depend broadly on two interrelated things: 1) conflicts over the control of oil resources between the US, Latin America (with Venezuela in the lead), and Iran along with the rest of the Middle East; and 2) the current crisis of capitalism in general, and neoliberalism in particular.  the latter is important because it governs in part the interstate and inter-imperial rivalries listed in point number one.

how will the political and economic relationship change?  what obstacles will come up preventing any smooth transition between ruling classes?  if disciplining the minors’ union in the 1930s & 40s is any indication of what is to come, what does this mean for the shifting power relationship between the rulers on the one hand, and the working class and other forces from below on the other?

but i’ll stop here and let Caffentiz take it away…

‘Everything Must Change So That Everything Can Remain the Same’: Notes on Obama’s Energy Plan

The Bush administration’s energy policy, with its evasions and invasions, has led to poverty, war and environmental destruction. But will Obama’s policy really be substantially different? Will this be change we can believe in? Turbulence asked George Caffentiz, a seasoned analyst of energy politics, to investigate.

Is President Obama’s oil/energy policy going to be different from the Bush Administration’s? My immediate answer to this question will be a firm No, followed by a more hesitant Yes. The reason for this ambivalence is simple: the failure of the Bush Administration to radically change the oil industry in its neoliberal image has made a transition from an oil-based energy regime inevitable, and the Obama Administration is responding to this inevitability. We are, consequently, in the midst of an epochal shift and so must revise our assessments of the political forces and debates of the past with some circumspection.

Before I examine both sides of this answer, we should be clear as to the two sets of oil/energy policies being discussed.

The Bush policy paradigm’s premise is all too familiar: the ‘real’ energy crisis has nothing to do with the natural limits on energy resources, but it is due to the constraints on energy production imposed by government regulation and the OPEC cartel. First, energy production must be liberalised and the corrupt, dictatorial and terrorist-friendly OPEC cartel dissolved by US-backed coups (Venezuela) and invasions (Iraq and Iran). Then, according to the Bush folk, the free market can finally impose realistic prices on the energy commodities (which ought to be about half of the present ones). This in turn will stimulate the production of adequate supplies and a new round of spectacular growth of profits and wages.

Obama’s oil/energy policy, during the campaign and after his election, has an equally familiar premise. As he presented on January 27, 2009, ‘I will reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs… America’s dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation has faced. It bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism.’ In the long-term, this policy includes: a ‘clean tech’ Venture Capital Plan; Cap and Trade; Clean Coal Technology development; stricter automobile gas-mileage standards; and cautious support for nuclear power electricity generation.

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in an exchange over at turbulence it was briefly asked how the ecological crisis can be understood as it specifically relates to the current neoliberal epoch of capitalism.  it’s an important question.  different aspects of both the capitalist and ecological crisis would have to be used to explain each other on a case by case, or issue by issue basis.

Loren Goldner offers an explanation of neoliberalism that includes an ecological dimension.  he describes the form of ecological devastation during the present era as part of the need for what he calls “looting,” or primitive accumulation.  currently, the claims to wealth by the capitalists exceed the actual amount of wealth in the world.  so, along with wages and public infrastructure, the environment is being looted to make up for that lack of real wealth.

Goldner argues that this is a contraction of social reproduction, which means that capitalism is cannibalizing its means to expand its ability to create real wealth.  instead of real wealth, the stock market and other speculative financial measures create what Goldner calls “fictitious capital.”

As of the end of 2005, there was  $33 trillion in outstanding debt (Federal, state, local, corporate, personal) in the U.S. economy, three times GDP. (No one knows how much is tied up in the international hedge funds and derivatives, and the estimated $7-8 trillion in Federal debt does not include trillions more in commitments for Social Security and Medicare.)  The state (including Federal, state and local levels) consumes 40% of GDP. The net U.S. debt abroad is between $3 and $4 trillion (at least $11 trillion held by foreigners minus $8 trillion in U.S. assets abroad) i.e. it is comparable (at 30% of GDP) to the situation of crisis-ridden Third World countries.  That amount is growing by $800 billion a year at current rates. Ominously, in late 2005, foreign income from investment in the U.S. exceeded U.S. income from overseas investment (the one remaining strong pillar of the U.S. international position) for the first time. Foreigners hold an increasing percent of U.S. government debt; the four major Asian central banks (Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan) alone hold nearly $2 trillion.  It is the Federal government’s debt, and hence these foreign loans, which make possible the reflationary actions of the Federal Reserve Bank. Since the early 1980’s, a kind of  “financial arbitrage capitalism”, in which investment in increasingly focused on different possible financial instruments instead of production, has been put in place.  Thus the old conceptualization of the role of the banking system and the Fed’s (apparent) ability to expand and contract credit availability through it,  is superseded;  increasing amounts of “virtual” credit are created by “securitized finance” independent of banks. One must also consider the government-linked entities (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae), which backed the reflation of mortgages of the past 4 years, leading to an incredible housing bubble. This entire edifice has depended on 1) low inflation in the U.S., as higher inflation would scare off foreign lenders; 2) the willingness of U.S,  “consumers” to go more and more heavily into debt (with debt service now taking 14% of incomes, as opposed to 11% a few years ago) 3) the willingness and ability and above all the need of foreigners to go on re-lending U.S. balance-of-payments deficits back to the U.S., allowing increasingly indebted U.S. “consumers” to be the “locomotive” of the world economy […]

Accumulation is threatened because the totality of capitalist paper claims to wealth (profit, interest and ground rent), starting with the $3-4 trillion “nomad dollars” held outside the U.S.,  exceed the surplus value available for their valorization. This excess of fictitious claims is, as sketched above, the result of decades of debt pyramiding aimed at delaying a deflationary crisis, and can be maintained only by reducing the global wage and through “primitive accumulation” (non-reproduction or non-exchange) from incorporating petty producers from Third World agriculture into the global working class, the running down of capital plant and infrastructure, and the looting of nature. It is quite different from earlier, “normal” capitalist expansions in which these claims grow alongside the expanded reproduction of society. Today, capitalist paper expands and social reproduction contracts.

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i’ve wanted to start reading the works of John Bellamy Foster for some time now, and one of the ‘rads got me his first book on ecology, The Vulnerable Planet, for Christmas.  Foster, along with Paul Burkett, have been credited with popularizing a Marxist approach towards ecology.

both Foster and Burkett have been important for Marxism because, for a time, Marx has been accused by elements within ecology movement as either having no position on the subject, being Promethean in his attitude to the natural world, or that Marx failed to recognize any natural limits to production.

i’ve just read Foster’s “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift” (or, for the pdf) which provides a good introduction to Foster’s efforts, and takes up these criticisms.

metabolic rift and sustainability

“metabolism” is the term Marx uses to describe the relationship between human beings and the natural world.  not missing a beat, Marx understands this material exchange and transformation between humanity and the natural world through the aspects of materialist and dialectical philosophy that permeate his work.  he reasons that 1) human beings are constantly interacting with the physical/material/natural world, and 2) people are, themselves, physical/material/natural beings.  every time we change their environment, we change the conditions in which we live, and subsequently ourselves in the process.

if the natural world is one set of material conditions for our existence, then it follows that it poses its own set of limitations in the form of scientific natural law and resource scarcity, and society poses its own set of limitations in terms of both technological capability and social organization of production (production for profit or freedom?).  Marx understood the failure to recycle material back into production and the resulting environmental devastation to be the metabolic rift between humanity and the natural world (see “Utilization of the Refuse of Production” in Capital vol. 3).  Foster describes this as the estrangement of people from the natural conditions of their existence.

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a friend of mine recently reminded me how great the PBS news series Frontline is.  i started combing through their archives looking for what coverage they’ve done on the ecology movement.  so far i’ve watched the 2007 program entitled “Hot Politics” which covers the climate debate going on within the US ruling classes since 1988.  i’m still working my through the 2008 program entitled “Heat”.

in a recent post in which i shared my congealing thoughts on the ecology movement as it relates to the broader political climate i detailed how i see the current climate talks as part of the broader crisis facing the US ruling class.  “Hot Politics” has confirmed these inklings.  it really helps me understand something if i can trace its historical development, and “Hot Politics” does just that.  there is a lot of energy surrounding the UN climate talks in Copenhagen this December, but these COP (Congress of Party) talks have been going on since 1995, beginning in Madrid.  again and again in Rio, Madrid, Kyoto, Trieste, and Bali US rulers have given a big F-you to the rest of the world when it came to addressing climate change.  and as Frontline points out each of these times US rulers refused to sacrifice economic growth.

so as i asked before, why now?

i believe that one of the main factors in this willingness to negotiate is the recession. US capital is contracting, and if they’re going to face limitations to growth, they are trying to make sure that other national capitals are facing the same obstacles.  the climate talks give US rulers the opportunity to not only place limitations to capitalist growth for other nations, but it also gives them chance to set the terms of those limitations.  the problem of course, is that other ruling classes know the US is coming from a position of weakness.  Obama’s multilateralism is one indicator of this, and so the usual carrot and stick isn’t working.

what got me thinking about this is how the era of neoliberalism has been partially charaterized by an increasingly authoritarian state that continues to buck, dismantle and attack previous gains made by the working class and even the minimal standards of bourgeois democracy.  the declawing of the EPA is just one example.  it raises some important questions for what the US working class and ecology movement can accomplish during this time.

the terrain is really different for, say the Chinese working class who have been involved in a series of skirmishes with Chinese state security forces over the health effects of rampant ecological devastation.  (i’ll try to have more on these soon.)  Chinese capital, in contrast to the US, is expanding.  for the working class and ecology movements in China this means that the Chinese ruling classes have the ability to grant concessions and draw sections of those movements within the sphere of ruling class legitimacy and state intitutions.  these concessions by the US rulers are becoming less and less likely and possible.

in the US, the willingness of the US ruling classes to negotiate speaks to their weaknesses.  in China, we are only beginning to see how far Chinese capital has yet to go before they completely commoditize China — socially, geographically and ecologically.  there are vast cracks and gaps amongst the world wide ruling classes.  as one interviewee said, “this century is up for grabs.”  the working class and oppressed can accomplish so much.

i posted the following on Gathering Forces.  i haven’t posted anything in a while and i just wanted to get something up.  the piece is more or less my thoughts – a few scattered puzzle pieces, really – on the connection between the issues and questions facing the ecology movement as it relates to the broader political climate.

Gathering Forces, by the way, is a project i work on with a number of other folks.  it takes up broader political issues and questions of revolutionary organization.

There has been a lot of excitement by the left and the ecology movement lately, particularly around the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, the climate bill proposed by the House and recently amended by the Senate, and finally around the upcoming UN climate talks in Copenhagen.  But it’s worth noting how the broader political terrain today forms the hot topics of the ecology movement if we’re to effectively plan our campaigns and strategies.

This past spring, despite the hopes of environmentalists that lined up behind Obama’s presidential campaign, the EPA okayed over 40 mountain-top removal coal-mining projects without scrutiny. This form of coal mining is one of the more the ecologically destructive methods of coal mining.  The process dumps tons of chemicals and unwanted material down the sides of the mountain. burying wildlife and vegetation on the sides, and contaminating local water supplies.  It also allows mining companies to lay-off workers and cut labor costs because less people are needed than traditional forms of mining.

But just before labor day the EPA released a letter that indicates that the Obama administration and the EPA are seeking to block one of the largest mountain top mining permits issued, citing violations of the Clean Water Act.

Around the same time, the NYTimes began a series on water pollution noting violations of the Clean Water Act by coal mining companies.  The piece sites the lack of oversight and enforcement as a major problem, with companies dumping as much as 1000% of the allowed chemical concentration into local water systems in W Virginia.

So why the about-face?  Is Obama finally fulfilling his campaign promises to the environmental movement?

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one of the things i hope to do on this blog is to keep a running archive of past struggles, and the different Left groups that have taken up eco-struggles.  i think it’s important to note both how groups have fought back, and how different groups have understood those struggles.

i’ve been combing through some of the older issues of Midnight Notes trying to save some of their stuff even if i don’t get the time to read it right away.  one of the articles i did read was from the 1990 publication of their journal on a major strike at a paper mill company in Jay, Maine.  this article on the strike at International Paper (IP) is a must read for union militants and students of working class struggle.

that issue of the journal deals with what they call the ‘new enclosure movement’ by the ruling classes.  they’re referring to the way capitalism and the state has embarked on a process of cannibalizing its own infrastructure and attacking the gains and wages of working class peoples in order to stave off the crisis of falling profits; in a word, neoliberalism.  Midnight Notes is drawing references to the way the first capitalists dispossessed peasants and craftsmen of land rights and the means of production creating both capitalism and the working class — people who must sell their labor power to the bosses in exchange for a wage because they don’t possess the means (tools, land or otherwise) to create commodities or value.

the strike in Jay lasted for over a year and ended in defeat.  it was part of the general attack on unions and working class forms of social solidarity that has occurred under neoliberalism, one of the big ones being Reagan’s crushing of the airtraffic controllers strike, and the breaking of their union.  there are a few points about the strike that i think are important for thinking about ecological struggles.

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