Category Archives: Capitalism

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek

In this RSA animate, Slavoj Žižek provides a thought provoking take on the interrelations between capitalism and charitable giving.

Also posted in Philosophy, Video, Žižek

Professor Renata Salecl on Choice

I just can’t get enough of these. This one ruminates on philosophical issues surrounding individual choice as argued by Professor Renata Salecl.

Also posted in Philosophy, Pop Culture Issues, Video

RE: "Oil and the Regime of Capitalism: Questions to Philosophers of the Future" by Tere Vaden

Here’s a piece that was sent to me last year, but the issues of oil and the future that it raises are still quite poignant. The piece was originally posted in CTHEORY.

 Oil and the Regime of Capitalism: Questions to Philosophers of the
Future
==============================

====================================

~Tere Vaden~

“What if the hegemony of the West was not, after all, defined
by modern natural science and technology, enlightenment and
individualism but by a one-time offering of coal, gas and oil?”

The anthropological record suggests that, typically, in pre-modern
and non-industrialized communities the foundation of meaning is not
separate from the world of material income: utility objects are
beautiful and beauty is purposeful. Contrary to this, industrial
civilization has often been described as a divider of the world of
values and tools, means and objectives, which, through calculated
reason, extracts everything it can without actually knowing why or
for what purpose.

There is much truth in this bi-partition theory, but perhaps an even
more disturbing picture of industrial civilization is obtained if it
too is seen as a uniform culture that reveals the foundation of
meaning through its utility objects. In places all around the globe,
on land and in the sea, pipes protrude from beneath the ground,
meandering towards enormous containers and networks of more pipes.ct
Oil tankers and tank trucks haul acrid-smelling liquids further and
further away to increasingly smaller containers and tanks, until the
thin pipes end up in a pressure chamber where droplets split into gas
are continuously combusted. What does this simultaneous foundation of
meaning and for material life say about us? At the very least, it
tells us that if it is the foundation we are blind to it, and the
bi-partition theory is one form of blindness.

Capitalism and the bottlenecks
——————————

Let us examine two claims often presented about capitalism. According
to the first claim, capitalism is an endlessly adaptive system and
ideology. In an awkward way — one that a revolutionary may almost
loathe — capitalism can adapt to any circumstances. It swallows all
forms of resistance, transforming them into part of itself. Revolt
becomes commercialised and made into a product, big brother’s
extra-large trousers become hip-hop fashion, and ethnic identity
becomes commercial bric-a-brac. The second claim is that negative
limits can be set for capitalism, particularly in relation to
environmental problems such as pollution and climate change.
Supposedly, there is a physical limit to growth-oriented capitalism
after which nature can no longer withstand the use, and a
psycho-social, or even biological limit, beyond which man can no
longer endure life under capitalism.

Our wager is that we can begin thinking about the future in
opposition to these claims. Firstly, capitalism is a very fragile
system. Indeed, the contemporary complex capitalist system is not
particularly flexible or strong, but is instead stiff and weak.
Secondly, environmental problems have no limit beyond which they
become intolerable. As long as it happens slowly enough, they can
always become worse. Likewise, human psycho-social or biological
environments can radically deteriorate without becoming impossible.
More than once the last century demonstrated that the zero point of
psycho-social conditions can be reached without provoking systemic
breakdowns.

It is true that capitalism — as an abstract notion, as an image of a
system where there exists private property, and a society where one
is rewarded for ownership and where capital must grow — is, of
course, extremely flexible and not dependent on any single value or
social order. It can operate in many different climatic conditions,
and accommodate many different religious, as well as secular,
environments. No single issue determines the fate of abstract
capitalism. For this reason, undermining capitalism is difficult
because of its ability to escape final grounding not only in any
single issue but also in any complex of individual issues.

The counter-argument is that every concrete form of capitalism, every
really existing capitalism — for example, the system that prevails
in Finland, the Nordic countries or northern Europe in general, or
something even so abstract as Western capitalism — is sufficiently
concrete and consequently sensitive. Marx emphasised that capitalism
itself always produces crises, its own crises, moments when it
changes its preconditions. Indeed, the fact that capitalism is a
system that produces internal crises also demonstrates the claim that
capitalism is fragile. Crisis is always crisis: and it can also lead
to destruction.

This is linked with a morphological observation concerning forms and
sizes which is easiest to explain with an animal allegory. Let us
think, for example, of an animal in the shape of a mouse: the mouse
has thin legs, an oblong body, a relatively large head with a long
snout, etc. There exist other animals that are roughly the same as a
mouse, such as the shrew and rat. “Mouse-shaped”, however, cannot be
any size, for instance the size of a dog or horse. Its constitution
would not function at that scale. The head would be too heavy, the
legs too thin, or something else along those lines. “Mouse-
shapedness” cannot arbitrarily grow so that the proportions of all
parts remain the same. For the same reason, capitalism reaches a
crisis point. It cannot continuously grow so that the proportions of
different parts remain the same. The parts and the proportions of the
parts must change. From this follows delicacy. Every concrete
capitalism is extremely frail at some point and in some way delimited
by a morphological bottle-neck, namely scarcity. At different moments
and in different concrete forms of capitalism the bottleneck is
different.

A second claim, according to which environmental problems, pollution,
climate change and so forth have no limits, is simultaneously related
to the claim concerning life under a capitalist system. In his book
_Planet of Slums_ [1] Mike Davis describes the mega-cities of Africa,
Latin America, India, China and Indonesia, where tens of millions of
people, and in continuously increasing numbers, live in slum
conditions. Davis tells about the single mother in the slum, who
already lives in unbearable conditions, is the poorest of the poor,
having two jobs, but with no comforts, no water or sanitation. What
happens when one more child is born? The mother will bear it. What
about when the old and sick grandmother has to be taken care of? The
mother will bear it because she has to. There is no limit after which
the slum mother can no longer bear it because the option of not
bearing it does not exist. Demands can always be increased,
circumstances made worse, and she will always endure. The same can be
said for more widely based living conditions and the environment. As
long as change occurs slowly enough, conditions will not likely
appear so negative that people would not consent to accommodating
themselves to their (capitalist) fate.

Following these leads, we must take a closer look at present
capitalism. Do we encounter a negative limit after which we no longer
tolerate it? No. The limit of capitalism must therefore be looked for
from the positive side through morphological frailty. What are the
preconditions — environmental prerequisites, raw material
prerequisites — that present capitalism needs? Due to the frailty of
capitalism, one must concentrate on what is particular and concrete,
what this capitalism needs. What is *this* capitalism?

Capitalism, which is based on the principle of economic growth,
necessarily needs raw materials, free trade, world trade, and
globalization — though there do perhaps exist forms of capitalism
that do not need, for instance, world trade. Is there a form of
capitalism that does not need economic growth? That is already more
debatable. Can one date the birth of present capitalism? One of the
best indicators is the start of economic growth. Roughly during the
1820s in Europe there began a long period of economic growth and
increased production, which also corresponded with the growth in
population: these are depicted by the famous “hockey stick” graph,
where the point where the handle reaches the blade represents, at the
latest, the 1950s. Economic growth is not a generally applicable or
common phenomenon. Rather, the incipient economic growth had
comparatively clear reasons and forms: coal and the steam engine, the
electric motor and the combustion engine, oil and natural gas. The
era of fossil fuels and the motors and machines that utilise them is
inseparable from economic growth and the bottleneck of present
capitalism.

Therefore, a philosophical claim: to a great extent, theoretical
discourse concerning capitalism concerns *this* concrete capitalism
and not abstract capitalism, even though such discourse is always
aware of its own limited knowledge. For example, when Marx and Engels
in _Manifesto of the Communist Party_ (1848) characterise capitalism
as a system where “all that is solid melts into air and all that is
holy is profaned” [2] the question then is about *this* concrete
capitalism based on economic growth that has been fed with cheap
fossil fuel energy. This capitalism changes with the economy of coal
and oil, like a mouse becomes a dog and a dog becomes an elephant.
These metamorphoses are not the platonic phenomena of abstract
capitalism but are instead directly attached to the movements of
black raw materials.

Oil dependency and the oil peak
——————————

Oil dependency means that the present capitalism needs cheap oil. Oil
is a non-renewable natural resource. “Non-renewable” means that as
oil is used it runs out. The question, however, concerning when oil
*completely* runs out is not particularly interesting. What is
decisive is the bottleneck question: when does the sufficiently
cheap, easy oil that can be pumped in large amounts, run out? Oil may
“always” be available somewhere at some price but the point where it
starts to hurt, however, is the lack of abundant, cheap oil. The
question becomes philosophical when we remember that the Marxist
theoreticians describe themselves as materialists, who pay attention
at the ground level to the concrete forms of production and their
conditions. Fossil fuel or energy in general have, however, been
relatively little discussed in Marxist theory.

Famous Marxist political leaders certainly realised the importance of
energy — Lenin had his motto “socialism = electricity + the power of
the soviets”; Stalin began his career by organizing strikes and
blockades in the Baku oil fields — but not necessarily the
limitations to productivism caused by the finite nature of fossil
fuels. Cuba and Latin American countries may provide the crucial
exceptions to this pattern. In Cuba, the so-called “Special Period”
after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the decades-long US embargo
have, without a doubt, made energy a prominent topic for political
thought. In his autobiography, speaking with Ignacio Ramonet about
the environmental disaster, Fidel Castro makes the crucial
observation: “Marx thought that the limit on the development of
wealth lay in the social system, not in natural resources, as we know
today.” [3]

Let’s think, for example, of work. Production can be increased in two
ways; by doing more work or by doing the same tasks more efficiently,
more productively. The history of contemporary capitalism is the
history of both these branches: efficiency is increased by the
division of labour, specialization, technology and automation. At the
same time, also more work is carried out: human work and non-human
work powered by energy. Both Marxists and anti-Marxists have had much
to say about how a new labour force is created by turning people into
paid labour. Yet surprisingly little has been said precisely about
the increase of non-human labour, and its morphological effects. Oil
is not, of course, “produced”, even though the term is generally in
use. Oil is not “man-made”. It is discovered, extracted and then
used. The use of oil as energy is, according to the definition in
physics, “the ability to work”: when burned and manipulated, oil does
work. Which factors in *this* capitalist system depend upon the
amount of easy and cheap non-human labour? Which of these
dependencies are arbitrary, and which ones are necessary?

In the 1950s, M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for the Shell
company, predicted that oil production in the USA would reach its
peak in 1970, which subsequently proved correct, one consequence of
which was the oil crisis of the 1970s. [4] The calculations regarding
availability and sufficiency of oil are, for many reasons, virtually
secret. First of all, the starting points are obscure because the oil
producing countries and oil companies have many reasons to keep the
estimates for oil production and the resources a secret or to distort
them. This is already in itself an interesting fact about the
“transparent market economy”: the market economy itself hides the
basis for its continuity as a side product of its own actions.
Scientifically peer-reviewed information about oil quantities simply
does not exist. In the same way as the stock market can act only
under the circumstances of unfree and unbalanced information, the
combustion engine of *this* capitalism can only keep running if the
fuel gauge is unreliable.

There are many different ways, however, of assessing the situation.
Hubbert’s classic calculation was based on a simple observation: the
production of a single oil well can be described roughly with the
help of the Gauss curve. Production increases, reaches its peak and
then decreases. This is represented by a bell curve, where the
highest point represents the moment of peak production (*peak oil* or
*Hubbert’s peak*). When the output indicators of individual oil wells
are added together we still get a bell curve — a much bigger one. Of
course a curve describing production is not totally symmetrical.
Hubbert’s first estimate from 1956 was based on the idea of how much
oil reserves there were in the USA (adding together the already
produced oil, the known resources and the assumption of still to be
found oil wells). [5]

When the amount of total reserves as well as the rise in production
are known, it is also possible to estimate the peak point and
decrease in production with the help of the bell curve. Hubbert’s
second method used as its starting point a curve that included the
amount of oil discovered. Production followed the curve of the
(total) amount of discovered oil with a delay of about 10 years.
Already then the number of discoveries was declining, anticipating
future decreases in production. Hubbert also calculated the time of
the peak using a third method based on the assessment of the success
of oil exploration: how much oil has been discovered when 10 million
feet has been drilled in exploration. The (total) amount of oil
discovered per drilled million feet decreased exponentially. Hubbert
predicted that peak production for the entire world would occur in
around the 1980s and 1990s. His methods and starting points have
subsequently been made more precise, but the basic assessments have
remained the same. [6] The discovery of new oil reserves have
decreased for decades and a large number of oil producing nations
have already passed their oil producing peak. A good example is the
UK, which thanks to the oil discovered in the North Sea in the 1970s
became an important oil exporter in the 1980s, passed its peak in
1999, and after that slid into an oil importing country at the
beginning of the 21st century.

EROEI, or does the cake grow by eating it?
——————————————

Oil is a quite incredible, lyrical, metaphysical substance. [7] A
natural scientist would say that oil consists of long hydro-carbon
chains. Depending on the different lengths of chains and adjacent
impurities, crude oil is classified as light, heavy, low-sulphur,
high-sulphur, and so on. Hydro-carbon chains are interesting
chemically: they are difficult to manufacture, making them requires a
lot of effort and energy, and they have many beautiful properties.
The formation of the hydro-carbon chains of oil required an
unimaginably long period of time. Generally, it is estimated that the
largest oil deposits began to form about 400 million years ago (the
human species is about 200,000 years old, the first oil rig was built
in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859). One of the oldest known oil
properties is that it burns. And in recent times it has been
discovered that it is possible to make almost anything from it:
microphones, walls, medicines, bags, computer parts, plates,
fertiliser, artificial joints, floor planks, and so on. In a way long
hydro-carbon chains are the alchemist’s dream, a substance from which
you can form anything you desire — albeit not gold. Even when trying
to describe oil in a soberly natural-scientific way — chemically,
geologically, paleobiologically — one ends up almost inevitably with
ecstatic and mystic visions.

In one year approximately one cubic mile of oil is used globally. [8]
Correspondingly, in the 21st century global consumption has been
about 85 million barrels per day. Contained in a cubic mile of oil is
an enormous amount of energy, the ability to carry out work. The same
amount of energy would be obtained if 50 nuclear power plants of the
type at Olkiluoto in Finland would produce electricity continuously
for 50 years (or put differently, if 2500 Olkiluoto nuclear power
plants would operate continuously for one year). Similarly, 104
coal-fired power plants of 500 megawatts would be needed to operate
for 50 years (or 5200 such plants for one year). Nobody is prepared
to calculate how much carbon-dioxide emissions that would create. In
the same vein, one could consider what it would mean to build 2500
new nuclear power plants. Would there be enough steel, concrete,
uranium, time, money… Here is a view into the cruel beauty of oil:
a cubic mile is, after all, not an impossibly large mass, [9] but the
energy it creates is virtually stellar. Only the sun exceeds oil in
energy amounts, and oil is, of course, “preserved sun”.

The enormity can be further illustrated by transforming these issues
into human labour — these transformations are, naturally, a mere
play of ideas and contain simplifications and unsubstantiated
assumptions. It is estimated that the energy consumption of the
entire world in 2005 was 15 terrawatts. [10] Out of this roughly 13
terawatts was accounted for by fossil fuels. Let us presume that one
human can work with an efficiency of 100 watts. If in 2005 there were
6.5 billion people on the planet their total annual work efficiency
(maximally) was 0.65 terawatts. Fossil fuel, in other words, gave
each person a 20-fold work increase (and other types of energy about
a triple increase). Because the energy increase has not been spread
evenly around the globe, one can assume that a typical Westerner has
tens of “oil slaves” in his service. If all this work were carried
out with human labour, 20 times more labour would be needed in the
world.

The gauge of the enormous work ability of oil is also accounted for
with a ratio called EROEI, “Energy Return on Energy Invested”. The
matter in itself is simple. EROEI measures how much energy is
required when a certain amount of energy is used; in other words, how
much potential additional energy is acquired by doing some actual
amount of work (e.g. how much heating energy is obtained when
firewood is chopped for a couple of hours). EROEI is not the same as
thermal efficiency, which measures how large an amount of the used
energy goes towards the intended purpose and how much goes wasted as
heat, etc. At the most, EROEI could be seen as the thermal efficiency
of energy acquisition work: i.e. how much work must be done, for
example, to fill a barrel with oil; is the amount of work greater or
smaller than the energy contained in a barrel of oil? EROEI is
calculated by dividing the amount of energy gained by the energy
expended. If the number is greater than 1 we get an “energy profit”,
but if it is smaller we get a loss. Again, an example from the animal
kingdom will help to illustrate. The capercaillie in the wintry
forest needs energy to keep warm, for digestion, to move about, and
maybe a little bit for growth and renewal. Energy is obtained by
eating spruce needles. If the frost condition is severe, the bird
will need to fly far to obtain sustenance. Energy-wise, its day is
likely to flip to the negative side of the EROEI calculation.
Realistically, it would have been better for the bird to have
remained in its snow shelter. Obviously, a state of negative EROEI
cannot last long.

So now we return to the bottleneck of capitalism when studying the
best oil and gas fields, which have an EROEI ratio in the tens.
According to the most optimistic claims, the EROEI of some oil fields
would have been even over 100; in other words, with the work of one
oil barrel one would have gotten 100 new barrels of oil. [11] Maybe
it is possible to believe such claims when one remembers how in old
films oil is shown spurting from the ground. At its easiest, oil can
indeed be found directly under the surface. These most easily
discovered and productive oil fields are naturally used up first, and
the EROEI of the fields in present production is well under 100,
under 50, if not even under 20.

Virtually free — or at least manifold rewarding — energy spurting
out from the ground: herein lies the material and mystical foundation
of growth-oriented capitalism. It is mystical because it masks its
existence so that neither capitalist nor anti-capitalist theory
refers to it when explaining economic growth and changes in the
economic systems over the last 150 years. The oil of the high EROEI
is the pulse of the economy but, to employ a different metaphor, it
also produces a blind spot in the middle of the theoretical analysis
of growth.

From the same black spot slither out also horrific tentacles.
Division of labour and technological development have raised
productivity. Billions of people have taken up and been born into
paid labour instead of life. From this obviously follows economic
growth. But at the same time the best energy sources of all time have
been bled dry. The stored solar energy of countless ancient years has
been used up in mere moments. As mentioned earlier, the work carried
out by this extra energy is ten times larger in comparison to human
work. The capitalist and socialist economic systems of the last
century received a unique gift; unique in the sense that there is
only one gift, and unique in the sense that the gift has soon been
used up. Worst of all is how dependent the post-green revolution
intensive farming is on the high EROEI oil. Farming with tractors,
combine harvesters, and artificial fertilisers made from natural gas
are not “primary production” but, from the EROEI perspective, a way
to consume energy. [12] We eat tons of fossil-fuels.

From uniqueness follows, inevitably, further questions. If many
generally applicable observations of political economy science are
concerned not with abstract capitalism (or socialism) [13] but rather
the uniquely oil-injected capitalism, then could the same category
error be evident also in some critiques of modernism, technology or
the Western lifestyle? What if the hegemony of the West was not,
after all, defined by modern natural science and technology,
enlightenment and individualism but by a one-time offering of coal,
gas and oil? As is well known, natural science and technology,
enlightenment and individualism cannot be exported — and have not
once been exported — without also exporting and using coal, gas and
oil. The Catholic faith needed only coal and wind.

From the Bottleneck to Tate
—————————

In Alfonso Cuaro’s film ~Children of Men~ (2006) people in the year
2027 are living in a dystopian world where no children have been born
since 2009. At one point in the film, the sympathetic character
Jasper (played by Michael Caine), who was apparently modelled on John
Lennon, tells a joke. All the geniuses of the world have been
gathered together in a conference that tries to establish the cause
for the infertility: chemicals, radiation, mutation… In the corner
sits an Englishman who does not participate in the discussion but
gorges himself on the conference food. Eventually others ask for his
opinion on why “we can’t make babies anymore?” And he replies, “I
haven’t the faintest idea, but this stork is quite tasty isn’t he?”

Calculating the EROEI of different forms of energy is not easy if
indeed possible at all. What should be taken into account when
calculating the EROEI of, for example, nuclear energy? Building the
power plant itself surely, as well as quarrying the uranium and
transport. What about the final disposal of the waste? For what
period of time? And what about the power grid, transformers,
accumulators…? What about the training required for experts in
nuclear power? In any case, the number of energy slaves goes down
rapidly with diminishing EROEI. No known energy source can even get
close to the EROEI figures of the best oil fields (coal comes
closest), particularly not nuclear energy, the EROEI calculation of
which may be less than one. Not a single nuclear power plant has been
built without a considerable consumption of fossil fuel. [14] Roughly
the same applies to all so-called alternative energy sources. Their
planning, construction and maintenance requires considerable amounts
of high EROEI fossil fuels, and they themselves produce energy with a
much lower EROEI. “Why is there continuously less energy left over?”
“I don’t know, but come here and have a look at what kind of solar
panel we built…”

Nobody knows the steepness of the down-slope of the bell curve.
Besides the Export Land Model (see footnote 6), it is steepened by
the decrease of the EROEI of the producing oil wells. The new and
already productive oil wells are increasingly in more difficult
locations — deeper under the sea, etc. — and contain crude oil of
an increasingly inferior quality, such as the famous “oil sands” of
Canada, which are really a tar-like substance, if not asphalt-like
stone. When descending along the down slope of the bell curve, an
increasingly larger part of the economy must be directed at energy
production; in other words, an increasingly smaller part of energy is
in the service of the rest of the economy.

It is possible that there exists an unknown limit for what the EROEI
of the energy economy must be so that *this* capitalism can function.
[15] One part of the ongoing crisis is that the summit of the bell
curve has already been passed. Since 2003 the oil consumption of the
OECD countries has been on a slight decline. Correspondingly, the
price of oil went up from the 2001 level (20-30 dollars a barrel) to
the crazy price peak of 2008 (at its highest almost 150 dollars a
barrel; in 2009 almost 70 dollars a barrel). These two trends
together describe, with the help of the law of demand, the
unrenewability of oil; even though the price of oil multiplied in a
few years production (or consumption) did not go up. The peak moment
of global oil production was somewhere around the summer of 2005. How
far down the slope are we now? Nobody knows, but in any case it has
come so far that production cannot be compared to what it was in
2005, and the time of sustained industrial economic growth and the
very cheapest oil has passed. [16]

In the beginning of the 1980s the energy consumption per capita in
the USA ceased to grow. The increase of energy no longer functioned
as a motor for economic growth, as it had during the whole time since
the 1860s, with the exception of the 1970s. From then onwards, US
economic growth has been reliant on debt. The ending of the energy
excess is one reason for the increase in the number of loans. And the
waning of cheap oil is one reason for the increase in costs for the
continuous taking of loans. The financial crisis and the oil crisis
are closely linked; amidst the lost growth shines the black light of
the oil well. The recession that we are currently living in is the
first one of its kind since the Second World War, at least according
to two gauges: for the first time the world’s economic production is
decreasing and for the first time the number of miles driven by car
is decreasing.

Due to the present crisis, the famous invisible hand cannot optimally
use up resources. When the price of oil per barrel is simultaneously
too high for the consumer and too low for the producer, that too is a
fault of the decreasing EROEI. Instead of the law of demand putting
things in order, it pushes a wedge between consumers and producers.
Consequently, new drilling projects are put on hold and productive
oil wells are abandoned; the invisible hand masks the resource while
at the same time there is a shortage. ‘The invisible hand’ may be one
of those thought experiments that only work in a capitalism into
which one can continuously feed more cheap energy. The invisible hand
has a harder time under the conditions of a shrinking or stagnant
economy.

Also, in the era of “negative growth” division of labour as a cause
of prosperity becomes suspect. Division of labour is surely one of
the reasons for economic growth during the last 150 years, but was it
itself a result of the high EROEI ratio of fossil fuels? Lasse
Nordlund [17] has shown in experiments that in the living conditions
of eastern Finland an adult can feed himself by using a 400m^2 area
of farming land, as well as additionally picking mushrooms and
berries in the surrounding forest. According to Nordlund’s
calculation, this requires about 4 hours of work a day divided evenly
throughout the whole year. Nordlund is suspicious not only towards
animal husbandry but also towards metal tools, because in a
self-reliant economy they are easily more trouble than they are
worth. From this viewpoint, specialization, and becoming tool and
technology dependent, explicitly require a continuous feed of excess
energy. It is possible that an important part of the specialization
and technologization of the modern world is dependent on and caused
by the magnificent, uniquely high EROEI of large oil wells. If this
is the case, then the claim that modern prosperity is mainly the
effect of improved technology and specialization, has to be revised.

And finally to the beginning
—————————-

The first conclusion in this situation is somewhat self-evident. If
economic growth is based on more work [18] (in terms of either amount
or productivity) and if the EROEI of all known energy sources is
considerably weaker than the EROEI of the oil fields that have
already been used up or are now in production, then the future
possibilities for an economy that continuously has to grow (in other
words *this* capitalism) seem weak. In fact, only a technological
miracle can save continuous growth and technological novelty cannot
be anticipated ~a priori~. Empirically, we see that all methods of
energy production in use are based on rather old technology and
science (the first versions of solar panels are from the end of the
1800s, the modern versions form the 1940s and nuclear power from
roughly the same decade). Does this promise fast breakthroughs or
rather the opposite? In any case, barring ground-breaking new energy
technology such as cold fusion, economic growth will in the future be
local and short term. What does the continuous shrinking of the
economy mean for science, technology, modernism and individualism? If
it means something significant at all, we have to realise that many
of the theories concerning these phenomena — which are based on the
idea that fossil fuel driven economic growth has nothing essential to
do with them — turn out to be limited and maybe even unfounded.

Emphasis on economic growth, technology and efficiency have
characterised the major part of the political thinking of the last
century. Therefore it is perhaps not surprising that an ideological
blindness to the basis of economic growth has been widespread. A
culture that is not aware of its own basic prerequisites can be
called not only blind but also nihilistic. If many
socio-philosophical ideas have unknowingly been based on the
assumption that a unique and in some sense arbitrary phenomenon
(i.e., economic growth based on high EROEI fossil fuels) is
universal, and have incorporated this blind spot into almost all our
thinking concerning modern economy, politics and technology, then our
glass is both half empty and half full. Half empty in that not many
philosophers, economists, critics of modernism or social thinkers
have said a rational word about the future where the economy shrinks
year after year. We have arrived in an uncharted region, where the
unknown is fully equivocal. Half full: talk about the end of history
and other cultural saturation should be forgotten. Even a large part
of philosophy can be started again from the beginning.

Notes
——————-

[1] Mike Davis, _Planet of Slums_ (London: Verso, 2006).

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, _Manifesto of the Communist
Party_ (1848)
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/
index.htm (accessed on 18 June 2010).

[3] Fidel Castro, with Ignacio Ramonet, _My Life_ (London: Penguin,
2008), 355. Interestingly, Castro also speculates that the reason for
the low fuel efficiency of Soviet cars was based on the fact that the
Soviets got more than enough gasoline (petrol) as a by-product of
their massive production of heavy fuel, such as diesel, for
agriculture, industry and the military, ibid., 357.

[4] On Hubbert’s calculations see David Strahan, _The Last Oil Shock_
(London: John Murray, 2008), 36-56.

[5] In the calculations for the oil peak, the estimation of future
finds is usually taken into account. For this reason, the claim
sometimes presented that some new find will overthrow the oil peak
theory is erroneous. An individual find would have to be the largest
and most easily accessible of all time for it to considerably effect
the time of the oil peak. It is this second condition, easy access,
that seems impossible to fulfill.

[6] There are two central public organisations for monitoring oil
production; the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which is
under the US Ministry of Defence, and the International Energy Agency
(IEA). The assessments of EIA and IEA on production and consumption
are published with a delay of a couple of months or sometimes even
years. Also, the reliability of the assessments has been questioned,
most recently by an anonymous whistleblower from inside the IEA, as
reported in November 2009 in the _Guardian_ by Terry Macalister, “Key
oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower”,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/09/peak-oil-
international-energy-agency2009 (accessed 18 June 2010). Consultant
companies and oil companies have real time information that is not
published or is only available at a price. Therefore the best public
assessments are compiled by various peer groups and independent
researchers and journalists. Networks exist that gather information
from several sources; for example, counting (on the basis of
satellite photos) how many oil tankers pass through the Strait of
Hormuz at a certain time period, or how much oil drilling equipment
has been ordered recently, and so forth. In this way it is possible
to estimate, for example, the oil production of Saudi Arabia, which
otherwise is a closely guarded secret. The information is compiled
and assessed on many different internet sites, including Wikipedia
(e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_megaprojects). A good example
of the oddities of the “scientific” information concerning oil —
whether economic or engineering science — is the so-called Export
Land Model (ELM). ELM has been developed on the Internet site “The
Oil Drum” (http://www.theoildrum.com), where professionals and
amateurs in different fields — oil engineers, investors, geologists,
environmental activists, prophets of doom — discuss oil news.
According to the ELM model, the right side of the bell curve, that
is, the recession, will be much steeper than the left edge, that is,
the growth period. This is because the producer countries’ own
consumption increases (as they get richer) at the same time as their
production decreases. Often, in the producer countries consumption of
oil goes *up*, when price goes up. There is thus less oil for export
than what one might expect based merely on geological depletion. Even
such a simple thing has had to be invented outside the “official”
economic science and research because the public information and
research concerning oil is rather limited and basic.

[7] Correspondingly, some of the best descriptions of the
world-historic relevance of oil are literary. The metaphysical and
mystical character of oil is beautifully exposed in Reza
Negarestani’s _Cyclonopedia_ (Melbourne: Re-press, 2008) where one of
the themes is the blind but necessary infestation that oil exerts.
See also the devastatingly prophetic text _Petroleum Petroleum_,
http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/?id=12&xid=1848&kapitel=43&cHash=
925ba3ce332 (accessed 18 June 2010) written in 1903 by Gustav
Meyrink, about a man-made oil-leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

[8] The cube model and its energy correspondences have been developed
to illustrate oil use, but the correspondences have also with good
reason been criticised. See, for example, Harry Goldstein and William
Sweet, “Joules, BTUs, Quads — Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” _IEEE
Spectrum_, January 2007.
http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/fossil-fuels/joules-btus-quadslets-
call-the-whole-thing-off (accessed 14 October 2009) and the Wikipedia
entry “Cubic mile of oil”,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil (accessed 18 June
2010).

[9] It is estimated that the glaciers of Greenland lost 36-60 cubic
miles of ice between 2002 and 2006; NASA, 23 March 2007, “Gravity
Measurements Help Melt Ice Mysteries”,
http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/grace-20070320.html,
(accessed 14 October 2009).

[10] Vaclav Smil, _Global Catastrophes and Trends_ (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 2008), 83.

[11] For EROEI figures see, for example, Charles A.S. Hall and Cutler
Cleveland, “EROI: Definition, History and Future Implications”.
Presentation at the ASPO-US conference, 10 October 2005.
http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/talks/EROI6a.ppt (accessed 14 October
2009).

[12] Calculating the EROEI figure for mechanised modern agriculture
is difficult and depends on many details. It is often stated that its
EROEI figure would be approximately 0.1; in other words, by using the
energy of ten barrels of oil, the amount of food corresponding to the
energy of 1 barrel of oil is achieved. See, for example, Chad
Hellwinckel and Daniel De La Torre Ugarte, “Peak Oil and the
Necessity of Transitioning to Regenerative Agriculture”, _Energy
Bulletin_, 6 October 2009. http://www.energybulletin.net/50316
(accessed 14 October 2009).

[13] It has been suggested that the passing of the oil peak in 1987
was a contributing reason to the collapse of the Soviet Union. See,
for example, Douglas B. Reynolds, “Peak Oil and the Fall of the
Soviet Union”, _Energy Bulletin_, 28 August 2006.
http://www.energybulletin.net/node/19837 (accessed 14 October 2009).

[14] The only non-labour intensive way of getting rid of nuclear
waste is probably to dump it in the sea, in the style of the Italian
mafia. See, for example, Greenpeace, “Mafia Links to Toxic Waste
Trade – Europe”.
http://archive.greenpeace.org/majordomo/index-press-releases/1997/
msg00375.html (accessed 18 June 2010).

[15] Experts have presented estimates varying between 5 and 50. See,
for example, Charles A. S. Hall, Stephen Balogh and David J. R.
Murphy, “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must
Have?”, _Energies_ 2009, 2, 25-47; doi:10.3390/en20100025,
http://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/2/1/25/pdf (accessed 18 June 2010).

[16] The widespread collapse of the economy could possibly lower the
price of oil back to a level of 20 dollars a barrel. The collapse
would, in itself, be the end of *this* capitalism.

[17] Lasse Nordlund, _The Foundations of Our Life. Reflections about
Human Labour, Money and Energy from Self-Sufficiency Standpoint_ (New
Delhi: SADED, 2008).

[18] The calculated and reported economic growth can also be based
on, for example, taking loans, printing new money or the rise of the
value of stock shares. For these no or minimal additional labour
would be needed.

—————-

Translation from Finnish: Kristina Kolhi and Gareth Griffiths.

Tere Vaden is a philosopher living in Tampere, Finland. He teaches
interactive media and philosophy at the University of Tampere and is
an editor of the philosophical journal _niin & nain_. Most recently
he has published the books _Wikiworld_ with Juha Suoranta, (London:
Pluto Press 2010) and _Artistic Research_ with Mika Hannula and Juha
Suoranta, (Gothenburg: ArtMonitor 2005).

_____________________________________________________________________

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Also posted in Critical Theory, Politics, Pop Culture Issues

RE: "A New Reading of Capitol," by Fredric Jameson

It seems that Fredric Jameson has published book that provides a new reading of Marx’s Capitol, which ought to be interesting. I’ve excerpted his introduction to the book below. You can find the full text to the article here.

A New Reading of Capital

Fredric Jameson
My title promises a preview of my forthcoming book, Representing Capital, a commentary on Volume I of Marx’s Capital, which I read somewhat differently than many of the standard interpretations. So I will tell you something about that and then draw some practical conclusions about Marxism today and its political and intellectual mission.

I am anxious that this work of mine not be understood as a “literary” reading of Capital: not only have those few such attempts been either weak generic classifications or fairly obvious notes on style and metaphor: indeed, the very term literary in this context is bound to trivialize the effort and to suggest that those debating the technical details of Marx’s economic analyses will have little interest in cultural epiphenomena like the textual status of the book as such. And it is true that I take little interest in Marx’s facts as he presents them or in the relevance of the laws he is alleged to have deduced from them. What I have wished to emphasize is the representation of capitalism as a totality, as an infernal machine which can only be described dialectically. I regard the truth of the labor theory of value as a metaphysical issue; I find the extrapolation of Marx’s model to the current third or globalized, postmodern, stage of capitalism to be of the greatest interest, but think that so far this can take many forms. And at the same time I consider that Marx’s description of capital is fully vindicated by recent events and remains as valid today as it ever was. Meanwhile, in this reading I limit myself to the only completed work, namely Volume I of Capital, and I claim that it gives a complete picture of capitalist totality. I should add, to justify my formal approach (which as I have said I would not want to call literary exactly, but which some will certainly continue to characterize as formalist in that way) — I should add that for me the central formal problem of Capital Volume I is the problem of representation: namely how to construct a totality out of individual elements, historical processes, and perspectives of all kinds; and indeed how to do justice to a totality which is not only non-empirical as a system of relationships, but which is also in full movement, in expansion, in a movement of totalization which is essential to its very existence and at the heart of its peculiar economic nature. Yet also essential to this structure is a process of perpetual breakdown: so we have here a machine which is necessarily and inevitably breaking down and which must therefore, to remain in existence, constantly repair itself by enlarging itself and its field of control. How such a peculiar and indeed such a unique phenomenon can be represented or made to appear in our mind’s eye is I believe explained by the equally unique and peculiar powers of dialectical thought, which might almost be considered a new type of thinking invented specifically to overcome the dilemmas of representation posed by this unique and peculiar totality called capital: but I will not pursue any more extensive account and defense or apologia of the dialectic here.
So now we begin, and with a scandalous proposal, namely to bracket the whole of Part One: it is of course the most famous section of the whole work, the one everyone reads even if they get no further; nor is my proposal motivated by quite the same concerns as those of Althusser and Korsch, both of whom suggested that the neophyte or working class reader skip these chapters, at least in part because both these thinkers were for different reasons adamantly opposed to the dialectic as such.
My reasons are somewhat different, though I would agree to this extent, namely that readers can become so mesmerized by the commodity form, fetishism and the like that they cease to explore Marxism any further. I remind you that Part One is what the Grundrisse’s editors call “The Chapter on Money”: it is not yet about capital, money has here not yet undergone its crucial metamorphosis into capital, and to that degree Part One stages something like capitalism’s pre-history (as does, in a very different way, Part Eight, on primitive accumulation), so that strictly speaking Marx’s description of capitalism as such can be limited to Parts Two through Seven. Certainly, in a society dominated by commodification, the analyses of Part One are politically more relevant today, just as the dimension of culture more generally is in our third stage of capitalism. Nonetheless in formal terms, I propose that Part One be considered a kind of complete work in its own right, a kind of overture to the main work, or better still a Vorspiel on the order of Das Rheingold, whose fundamental action will then come with the official Ring trilogy.
One of the reasons for doing so is that Part One has proven to be a fausse piste or as Heidegger calls it a Holzweg, a path leading nowhere. Part One is essentially an attack on the very notion of exchange, on the equation which suggests that there can be such a thing as an exchange of equals, or that the equation can be reversible. This means that there can be no such thing as a just price, and with this the whole project of social democracy or of the equitable reform of capitalism falls to the ground. But this result — politically productive — leaves us back at our starting point, with only one acquisition, namely a methodological one, which will now guide my reading of the rest of Volume One and which I will now briefly outline.
I want to understand plot in Capital as the solving of specific problems, the resolution of specific dilemmas. But as capitalism involves many problems and paradoxes, these resolutions will involve a variety of tentative explorations, and they will take the form of overlapping waves. A problem — paradox, aporia, contradiction — will declare itself; then, gradually, its solution will become apparent, but not without raising another problem in its wake. So by the time one wave has subsided, by the time one momentum has run its course, a new wave is beginning, and a new momentum established: a new problem has raised its head, demanding a fresh set of inquiries and chapters and a whole new movement forward. So this reading of Capital will seek to identify the point at which a new conundrum arises and to indicate how it is resolved and at the same time gives way to a new one. There are five or six waves which basically structure Capital Volume I, or in other words, organize that suspense — now how is this question to be answered? — which constitutes the plot of the work. (I hope it will not complicate this view of the text to add that from a dialectical point of view many of these problems turn out to be the same problem, and to involve the same answer — but in a different register, in different terms, from a different perspective.)

You can find the full text to the article here

Also posted in Jameson, Marx, Pop Culture Issues, Post Modernism

RE: "The Information Essay"

Here’s an excerpt of  an interesting essay on the proliferation of information sources and issues of power. You can find the full text here.

The Information Essay

This piece appears in Issue 11. Buy the issue.

Just as this is an age of great wealth inequality, it is also an age of great inequality of knowledge or, more exactly, factual information. For all its democratic potential, the fact-filled internet has only heightened the pre-Google asymmetry between those, on one side, loyal to Baconian methods of patient, inductive gathering of facts — the ways of the card catalog and the archive, of the analysis and evaluation of empirical data — and those, on the other side, who didn’t need to read Foucault or the Frankfurt School to nurture a suspicion that positivist orders of knowledge mask a hierarchy of power in which they are meant to occupy the lowest rungs.
It’s the Republican Party’s deliberate disinformation strategy, more than any properties inherent in so-called information technologies, that has created these two parallel Americas. In one of them, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, climate change is a patent hoax, and the Laffer curve is the most basic truth of economics. As for the inhabitants of the other universe — “the reality-based community” of old-fashioned skeptics and empiricists, frequenters of public and university libraries, readers of the New York Times and of Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, avid perusers of Harper’s Index and WikiLeaks — we possess ever vaster quantities of mostly accurate facts, and not much sense of what to do with them. Data data everywhere, and not a thought to think! Outside of a hedge fund or the CIA, there aren’t too many places where knowledge is power. Much of the time, intellectually and politically, knowledge is powerlessness.
The division between empiricists and fantasists is clearest in politics. But it’s beginning to enter literature. Dickens in Hard Times made fun of Gradgrind — “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these girls and boys nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life” — and there is a way in which, until recently, information and what used to be called “imaginative literature” were usually understood to be addressing themselves to the right and left hemispheres of the brain instead of the political spectrum. Lately, however, there has also come to be a literary expression or embodiment of liberal empiricism, an emergent literary Gradgrindism that deserves analysis.

You can find the full text here.

Also posted in Foucault, Information, Media, Politics, Pop Culture Issues