The Capital-Nation-State Complex and the Environment

Written by Antonis Broumas

The Patriarchal Relation with Nature

The root causes of the environmental crisis are social and that they lie in social relations of domination and exploitation. Social hierarchies and social stratification have parallel histories with man’s domination over nature. Ecological degradation from human causes precedes capitalism. It is a phenomenon dating back to the rise of patriarchy (Roussopoulos 2015 : 69-70). Gerontocracy and patriarchy are the most ancient forms of social hierarchy (Bookchin 1991 : 12). The prevalence of patriarchal relations in society gradually influenced the relation between nature and human societies. Feminine conceptions of symbiosis with Mother Nature were gradually displaced by masculine conceptions of nature as object of domination and manipulation.

Yet, the deep impact of the patriarchal relation to nature unfolded to its full extent when patriarchy was compounded with capitalist domination and exploitation. The combination of patriarchy and the inherently utilitarian perspective of the social power of capital was reflected in the thought of Francis Bacon, the father of modern science (Shiva 2010). The Baconian programme and the scientific revolution that followed were inspired by the masculine domination of man over nature. In Bacon’s words, “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave […] the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations” (Bacon 1604/1964 : 93, 96, 99)

Colonisation and the Destruction of the Commons

With the advent of capitalism, the destruction of ecosystems has increased exponentially. At the core of this destructive surge has been the accumulation and integration of relations of domination in the novel form of the capital-nation-state complex (Karatani 2014). In fact, the process of environmental degradation has been inseparably connected in history with the destruction of the European commons and the colonization of non-European peoples.

The commons are communal modes of life founded on sharing and cooperation, in which social power lies within the community, rather than being monopolized by institutions separated from the social body. Commons are inherently based on economies of sustenance, which establish a symbiotic relation between communities and ecosystems. They were the prevalent mode of living in Europe before the consolidation of the capital-nation-state complex and still remain the most important pillar of social reproduction.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, consecutive waves of state violence imposed the encroachment of the commons by the rising circuits of commodity market circulation and capitalist accumulation (Linebaugh 2014 : 4). Natural ecosystems, which were previously shared and stewarded in common, were now forcibly enclosed under the rule of private property. Communal ways of life, which depended on neighbouring ecosystems to reproduce themselves through time, were abruptly disrupted and displaced by socially imposed scarcity and the circulation of commodities. A giant process of decoupling communities from their means of subsistence swept the continent. In this process of enclosure, nature and humans were first disentangled by means of privatization, before being broken down into commodities, inserted as input into market circulation and, finally, exploited for private profit accumulation. Hence, enclosure became an act of war against the past and a pre-figuration of the capitalist future. It is against this annihilation that the Diggers cried out : “The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting int he comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so” (The Diggers cited in Hill 2006 : 78).

While destroying the commons of European societies, the power machine of the capital-nation-state complex exported social domination and ecological degradation to non-European peoples in the form of colonisation. From an ecological perspective, the process of colonisation outside Europe followed patterns similar to the process of capitalist expansion over the European commons. European colonists proclaimed terra nullius the newly conquered territories, such as the New World and Australia, in order to violently expropriate them from the indigenous peoples, who until then managed them in common (Wood 2003 : 72-82). It is wrong to equate colonialism with the economic theory of imperialism. Colonization should be viewed as this grand movement of enclosure, in which the communities of the commons are dissolved through the force of the state and replaced by the community of money and the circulation of commodities (Harvey 2010 : 294). Apart from its economic causes, which are rooted to the tendency of capital to expand and commodify new terrains of life in order to accumulate, colonization is a holistic power relation in which dominant social forces annihilate alternative forms of life and culture with the force of both physical violence and ideology. European colonists have prevailed over indigenous peoples by destroying the forms of life of the latter through the use of both the sword and the ideology of progress and domination of superior over inferior civilisations.

Fundamentally, colonisation is a process of capital accumulation through the extraction of value from the commons. Nowadays, the looting of the commons continues in the form of ever-expanding processes of commodification. As Hardt and Negri write, “ex­ploitation under the hegemony of immaterial labor is no longer primarily the expropriation of value measured by individual or collective labor time but rather the capture of value that is produced by cooperative labor and that becomes increasingly common through its circulation in social net­works” (Hardt and Negri 2004 : 113). Hence, the colonization of societies and ecosystems by capital continues today on a grander global scale not only at the peripheries and the margins but also in the core of the dominant power system. Such processes of commodification are however countered by juxtaposing practices of commonification, as social movements in all terrains of social reproduction fight back.

Capital and the Inherent Tendency Towards Growth

Economic growth is one of the three fundamental contradictions of capital vis a vis society, the other two being domination and exploitation. The exacerbation of the ecological crisis in recent decades has brought this contradiction to the forefront, rendering necessary the re-orientation of social struggles in account of its centrality in the current socio-historical period.

Within the framework of permanent economic growth, societies dominated by capital are trapped in a vicious circle of constantly expanding their productive activities in order to avoid the deadly repercussions of capitalist economic crises. In any society, modes of production, distribution and consumption of resources are the focal points where the metabolism between humanity and nature takes place. In our societies, capital dominates the organization of production, distribution and consumption according to its inherent normalities, thereby pressurizing social agents to expand their economic activities. Therefore, economic growth in capitalism should not be considered as a temporary or parodic phenomenon but rather as an unending process of commodity market expansion to every facet of social activity and natural space. It is in fact a symptom of a series of inherent traits of capital (Olin Wright 2016). Therefore, the root causes of the contradiction of economic growth should be sought out at the laws of motion of capitalist circulation and accumulation.

In this context, Marx writes about the capitalist that “[f]anatically bent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake” (Marx 1990/1867 : 739) to continue with the famous scream : “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets […] Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production of the sake of production : this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination” (Marx 1990/1867 : 742). In the Marxian analysis, capital has the inherent tendency to accumulate its social power and acquire its very nature by producing more money out of money. This happens because capital must be in constant circulation, in order not to fall into capitalist crises. The need to constantly reinvest surplus value however leads to permanent growth. The tendency to accumulate renders expansion and growth inevitable in any society that fails to overthrow the grip of capital away from its central practices.

Resistance to the tendency of capital accumulation from within becomes futile. Within the framework of commodity markets individual capitalists who resist this tendency tend to be outcompeted and eliminated by superior accumulations of capitalist social power. Hence, under the iron laws of competition the human – capitalist becomes just a cog in the machine. As long as it remains within the confines of the economic dimension of exploitation, the power of labour also becomes –despite its contradictory relation- a diversity in the dialectical unity of the capitalist machine and a social force condemned to reproduce through resistance the world of capital and its ecologically destructive growth. The death knell of the social power of capital can therefore only come from a heterogeneous social counter-power in relative externality to the world of commodities and capital, a socio-political force based on alternative value circuits and life forms which dialectically emerges from its resistance to domination, exploitation and growth and the will to overcome them. As De Angelis writes, this force emerges in the commons and constitutes “an alternative realm in which material and social life is re-produced outside capital” (De Angelis 2007 : 32).

As if the tendency of capital accumulation was not enough, the contemporary financialisation of capital accelerates the rhythms of growth and crises. In general, debt is an ingenious device preceding capitalism, which has been repeatedly utilized in history to control and define the future (Lazzarato 2011 : 46). “To breed an animal with the right to make promises [means] to ordain the future in advance” writes Nietsche (1989 : 58). Within capitalism, governing by debt means valorizing the capacities of future production for the purpose of capital accumulation (Haiven 2014 : 122), projecting the image of the current destructive force of capital to the future and, thus, compelling next generations to an ever-intensifying race of economic growth. The novel sophisticated products of financial capital have made it possible to exploit future productive capacities, disperse and secure investment risk at an unprecedented level of efficiency and thus construct and expand financial markets. The rise of credit money over citizens, production and the state has reconfigured the relationship between capital and societies and has rendered financial capital the main contemporary locus of social power.

From the thoughts exhibited above, it becomes clear that capitalist growth presupposes the inexhaustible supply of natural resources and the unlimited capacity of nature to regenerate from the externalities of industrial consumption and waste disposal (Karatani 2014 : 205). Since we live and are sustained by a finite and fragile natural world, these preconditions cannot be expected to be fulfilled. As a result, capitalism is rapidly stretching nature to its limits.

Two alternatives lie ahead. Either we transcend the domination of capital and save humanity and ecosystems, as we know them. Or our societies collapse under apocalyptic conditions of ecological and, inevitably, social degradation. Far from being a case among like-minded radicals, it is becoming more and more evident today that the struggle against capitalism on the side of social counter-power is an almost pan-social fight for our collective survival.

Commodification and the Production of Scarcity

Growth is a social phenomenon intertwined, on the one hand, with natural degradation and, on the other hand, with domination and exploitation. Any productive activity has not only positive but also negative externalities upon nature and human capacities, metabolizing and consuming the latter in its process of production.

The uncontrollably expansive production of capitalism deepens and intensifies the repercussions upon nature and society. In the context of capitalist societies, production is inextricably connected with anti-production. In terms of nature, as Vandana Shiva comments, “[w]hen sustenance is the organizing principle of society’s relationship with nature, nature exists as a commons. It only becomes a resource when profits and capital accumulation become the organizing principles and create an imperative for the exploitation of resources for the market” (Shiva 2010 : 239). In terms of labour, as Maurizio Lazzarato writes, “[a]t the same time as it produces wealth, capitalism necessarily produces misery and poverty […] growth is a perverse solution to the social question and to the problem of justice, for growth is simultaneously production and destruction” (Lazzarato 2013 : 57-8). The process of capitalist growth should be viewed as a process of undermining the general sources of wealth, i.e. nature and human productive activity. As a result, the more capitalist societies pledge on ideologies of infinite growth the greater relations of domination and exploitation intensify, deepen and multiply. In this sense, capital becomes a machine of destructive social power so efficient that mankind has never seen before, a machine of destruction which needs to be smashed by social counter-power under conditions of radical emancipatory and democratic transformation.

In processes of capitalist domination, destruction comes first and production follows. The first act of commodity market expansion is the enclosure of the commons. Commodification is a moment of destruction and radical transformation towards societies dominated by capital. At the moment of enclosure communal forms of life and governance of means of sustenance are annihilated and replaced by circuits of commodities and money, practices of economic exchange for profit, ethics of individuality and the violent monopolization of the political sphere by the state. What is also destroyed is the abundance of the means of sustenance for whole populations, previously guaranteed by social practices of sharing and pooling together. As Pierre Clastres and Marshall Sahlins have proven, communities within the commons reject the assumption of scarcity and adhere to rationalities of sharing, mutual aid, sustenance and symbiosis with nature in the allocation and consumption of available resources (Clastres 2010, Sahlins 1972). On the contrary, the starting point of bourgeois economics is the efficient management of scarce resources. Commodity markets are based on the construction and allocation of scarcity and inequality among social agents. In the words of Vandana Shiva, “[the] diversion to the market economy generates a condition of scarcity for ecological stability and creates new forms of poverty for people” (Shiva 2010 : 240).

The construction of scarcity under the dominance of capital takes place in two phases. At the phase of the enclosure, populations are separated from the means of their subsistence and communal forms of life are ideologically degraded and violently dismantled. At this phase, societies fall under the reign of capital but still preserve great parts of their reproduction under the sphere of the commons. At the phase of ecological disequilibrium, ancillary crises are countered by the expansion of processes of commodification to most facets of social reproduction. This is the moment when capital replaces pre-existing natural and social cycles of reproduction with artificial circuits of reproduction according to its image, i.e. the construction of commodity markets in terrains which were previously commons. For instance, the repercussions of climate change have created novel needs in order to make lives bearable again, such as the widespread use of air-conditioning appliances and bottled water. Through this vicious circle the attainment of basic needs and every-day desires is all the more penetrated by the commodity and the logic of capital accumulation. After all, for capital ecological disequilibrium and catastrophe just means new markets and more profits. In corollary, in terms of the degree of social dependence to capital, the first phase marks the formal and the second the real subsumption of societies under capital.

Commodification and the Production of Another Nature Mirroring Capital

At the corridors of power is widespread the belief that the ecological crisis can be resolved through the mobilisation of the productive powers of capitalism towards ecological aims. According to this view, the solution to the contradiction of capitalist growth is eco-capitalism, i.e. the transformation of a part of this growth into renewable energy and / or genetically modified food industries. In a techno-deterministic twist of this perspective, capital-dominated technology acquires the role of the magical saviour of mankind, providing the bases for the great leaps forward. Its charm lies on the promise of solving the major challenge of our era by leaving intact the interests of capital or even by further fuelling the very process of capital accumulation.

Another widely supported belief among ecological economists, even radical ones (Hahnel 2015), supports as solution to the ecological crisis the deliberate institution of the calculation of ecologically negative externalities in economic decisions. In the current state of the institution of the commodity market, the environmental damage is not taken into account by market players, since it is not visible in the pricing mechanisms of supply and demand. Yet, the commodity market is a political institution, as all other social institutions, and can therefore be moulded to reflect the reality of value both produced and degraded in the process of production, distribution and consumption. For this reason, for-profit market players should be compelled to pay for the disvalueing of the environment by their economic activities. The applications of this approach in policy-making stretch from the enactment of “the polluter pays” principle in European Union environmental law to nature offsetting programmes and ecosystem service markets, the most prominent of which is the Clean Development Mechanism [CDM] of the Kyoto Protocol for the reduction of global emissions of C02.

Both of these approaches attempt to solve the ecological crisis with more capitalism. In the first approach, proponents are not afraid to exclaim that the ecological crisis is actually an opportunity for more growth and profits. Its promise is however false. Instead of harnessing the uncontrollable economic growth of contemporary societies, eco-capitalism ignites it further. No matter how brilliant technological innovations social workers invent to overcome the ecological challenges of humanity, as long as economies keep growing exponentially due to capital accumulation and social inequalities of domination, exploitation and wealth keep expanding, the new industries of eco-capitalism will mirror the shortcomings and ecological disadvantages of old industrial capitalism. There is not any magical solution to the currently unsustainable relation between humanity and nature, which will keep the mechanisms of capital accumulation and the interests of capital intact. The assignment to imagined as non-social forces, as is the case of technology, to provide solutions to major social problems, in other words the attempt to depoliticise deeply political challenges further exacerbate our ecological deadend, as time is running out.

The second proposal is an even more sophisticated approach for the subsumption of nature under the rule of capital. At its surface, this proposal appears to support marginal adjustments to the pricing system of commodity markets. In essence though, its practical applications and policies are extensive. Putting a price tag to nature and rendering ecosystems and their elements as inputs to commodity markets is a paradigm shift to humanity’s response to the ecological crisis. What has started as a global stock exchange for rights to emit C02, can take further shape as a series of stock exchanges for endangered species and as the ultimate financialisation of nature. What now commences as the quantification of ecosystems according to economic valuation methodologies, will probably end up into the monetization and commercialization of ecological “service” units under the pressure of commodification. What is today proposed as offsetting an ecological catastrophe at a certain place of the planet with a construction of a forest at another, may prove to be a lethal menace of remaining wildlife and virgin ecosystems. The commodity market is a system of distribution of clearly delineated units with quantified values and of homogeneous nature. Ecosystems are equilibria of relations between diverse organisms. As Kill comments, “Nature cannot be reduced to neatly packaged, measurable, comparable and interchangeable units of “ecosystem services” (Kill 2015 : 32). Hence, any attempt of humanity to reproduce natural ecosystems according to commodity market dynamics will destroy nature as we know it.

Both of these approaches elucidate the way forward in terms of the ecological crisis offered by capital. It is a fallacy to think that this way forward stops short to the destruction of nature. After all, capital has always been a force of destructive creation or, better, creative destruction. The objective is the production of another nature, as it always has also been the production of another humanity. This artificial nature will mirror the laws of motion of capital and will act as appendage to capital accumulation. Whenever we therefore think about the ecological question, we have to bear in mind that what for society equals to ecological apocalypse is for capital and its supporters an almost natural cycle for the transition to the next phase of capital accumulation.

Despite 150 years of state management of the environmental question and hundreds of transnational and international treaties and other legal instruments  for natural conservation it is evident that we have reached a critical point of no return concerning ecological issues (Roussopoulos 2015). In the present division of labour in the systematic destruction of ecosystems, the state has the role of managing the catastrophic repercussions of capitalist economic activity, not of responding to the root causes of the phenomenon. This happens because the relation between capital and the nation state is that of a diverse and contradictory, though ultimately unified, complex of social power, not of two distinct social forces with juxtaposing aims and practices. In this context, the pressure towards solutions, which regenerate and revive capitalism, in national, transnational and global political institutions dedicated to fighting climate change does not fall from the sky, but rather reflects the dominant social forces, which bear the responsibility for our present state of affairs. The framing of agendas only according to these solutions aims for the eradication of proposals which support radical alternatives to the current catastrophic course of history. Experience from the history of environmentalism calls for a re-orientation of the ecological movement away from state-centred or techno-deterministic approaches and towards non-reformist reforms, which promote self-sustenance, decentralise economic power, eliminate social inequalities and deepen democracy in direct confrontation with the power of capital.

November 11, 2017

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