I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. Graham Murdock‘s keynote at the current ICTs & Society Conference in Uppsala prompted me even further. Murdock gave a historically grounded overview of the emergence of practices that act to enclose and exploit resources that have historically been understood as commons.
A month earlier, John Lanchester’s brilliant exposé of Marx was published in London Review of Books. The great thing about Lanchester’s account is that it dares to criticize the revered 19th century master (a critical capacity that I unfortunately found lacking in some of the other presentations at abovementioned conference). Besides locating the utopian possibility of salvation in the ascendancy of the global proletariat – something that unfortunately seems like a rather bleak prospect in this century – the main problem with Marx, Lanchester points out, is that he was not fully foreseeing the massive impact on the natural ecology that industrialism would have. In fact, if we read thinkers like Bruno Latour and Carolyn Merchant, Nature – with capital N – was signed off at the outset of modernity and industrialism, and the artificial split between Nature, on the one side, and Culture, on the other, only acts to ideologically gloss over what is becoming painfully obvious: Nature, as is, is already incorporated in human agency; it’s a prosthetic attachment which acts to nourish the general wealth that makes it possible for me to attend conferences and run this blog.
Nature is the ultimate commons. As such, it’s enmeshed into the economy – it’s the constant, ubiquitous source, to the point of invisibility. As Carolyn Merchant has argued:
My argument is that the mechanistic worldview, which has become the dominant view of industrial capitalism – in a sense, the ideology of capitalism – is a framework that gives permission to exploit and dominate nature. The results are seen in the ecological crisis.
Now, the question is whether to keep imagining that it isn’t so, and pretend that we can curb capitalism’s worst excesses, here and there, in the hope that its all-encompassing expansion would be temporarily halted. Or, we could argue for a sensible stewardship of ecologies (both natural and “unnatural”), an administration of the commons, as Murdock indeed argued for. This is where I see programmes such as emission rights being not only preferable, but in fact wholly necessary – if sensibly administered, of course! Perversely, it might be that only through the immersion of the “great untouched” – the ecosystems of Mother Earth – we can collectively act to save them. Today, it does not cost corporations anything to pollute the Earth. This is insane – an entire subset of externalities are written off, made non-accountable.
Marxists love to talk about “the colonization of the life-world” – Murdock for example talked about the tendency towards “the commodification of everything” (something that, he pointed out, was immanent already in Marx’s writings in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847). This, I believe, is today an unavoidable drift – unless a “world government” would be installed, a forceful imposition of institutionalized communism (which most likely would involve bloodshed), we simply have to make do with the weapons at our disposal, and look for new weapons (pace Deleuze). Such weapons – tools – I believe are the tools of sustainable management, universal standards, regulation in various ways; a coercion from the side of accountable governments (exposed to voters) towards corporations, that (them too) are held accountable (as they rely on consumers). Emissions trading could be an equitable part of this mixed approach to regulation; currently, the schemes are way too toothless however, I don’t mean the above in an innocent, feeble way – what I am talking about would be severe, dramatic schemes compared to today.
One famous theorist who develop similar thoughts – an ecologically accountable regulation of capitalism – is Alf Hornborg (see some elucidating interviews in Swedish here), who in turn is very influenced both by Marx and by the “world systems” theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. What I sometimes miss in their thinking is a rather more dynamic, complex notion of networks; Marxist systems theory often tends to reinvoke and reify rather static categories. One example is how critical Marxists often tend to invoke dichotomous understandings of subject positions like “amateurs” versus “professionals” (where the former tends to be automatically seen as more noble than the latter), “activists” versus “non-activists” – or rather simplistic understandings of conversion of value, like in Hornborg’s example of local currencies (how would these not ”leak” over into the monetary economy, unless one would impose rather authoritarian measures?)
Here is a good reflection on Lanchester’s piece (in Swedish), a review (in Swedish) of Lanchester’s new novel, Capital. Matt Webb made an interesting allegory, the other week, comparing Instagram to an island economy, picking up on an explanatory quote from Lanchester:
This idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them, is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world.