Vortex Notes (3)

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The Guardian discovers—and reports on as ineptly as possible—the Pine Twitter underground and the wider eco-right cyber-sprawl:

In social media and the more secretive spaces of the online far right, eco-fascists are proselytising for genocidal solutions to environmental problems.

On Twitter, the “pine tree gang”, which journalist Jake Hanrahan describes as “less a cohesive movement than a loosely connected online subculture”, have been promoting ideas that blend a sense of impending environmental catastrophe with themes taken from white nationalism.

This subculture – which so far appears to be small in number – is frequently drawn to a so-called “terror wave” aesthetic, which elevates images of terrorist insurgency; promotes a specific, martial fashion imagery; and fantasies about armed conflict in the wake of environmental and social collapse.

Terror wave forums and threads are full of men in balaclavas, brandishing high-powered weaponry, wearing various combinations of tactical gear, combat uniforms and cheap athleisure wear. Images from the 1990s-era conflicts in the Balkans seem to have a particular appeal.

On Twitter, Nick Land, with reference to a line from the article concerning a desire for “accelerating the end of industrial civilisation”, jokes that “Even the decelerationists are accelerationists”.

For a far more interesting take on this tendency—one that makes the leap from the digital subcultural production to meatspace turbulence—Magda Siebert’s essay from July of last year, “Linkola, Montana”, is worth revisiting.

Greened

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There’s an interesting article from May of last year (happy belated New Years, blog friends! May your 2019 be better than the disjointed hangover from 2017 that 2018 was) that has been making the twitter rounds today. I’m off twitter at the moment, polishing off the book, but managed to snag it nonetheless. It’s from the folks at the University of Helsinki, by way of Phys.org: “Expansion of global forests reflects well-being, not rising CO2, experts say”. Now, the argument that the ‘global greening’ that is currently way derives primarily from the same forces driving anthropogenic climate change comes from NASA, among other places; I’ll point the interested reader to the following article (from which I nabbed the very pleasant image above): “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds”. In brief, here’s what they have to say:

Green leaves use energy from sunlight through photosynthesis to chemically combine carbon dioxide drawn in from the air with water and nutrients tapped from the ground to produce sugars, which are the main source of food, fiber and fuel for life on Earth. Studies have shown that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide increase photosynthesis, spurring plant growth.

However, carbon dioxide fertilization isn’t the only cause of increased plant growth—nitrogen, land cover change and climate change by way of global temperature, precipitation and sunlight changes all contribute to the greening effect. To determine the extent of carbon dioxide’s contribution, researchers ran the data for carbon dioxide and each of the other variables in isolation through several computer models that mimic the plant growth observed in the satellite data.

Results showed that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70 percent of the greening effect, said co-author Ranga Myneni, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. “The second most important driver is nitrogen, at 9 percent. So we see what an outsized role COplays in this process.”

Pretty straightforward stuff. The Helsinki study, however, makes a strikingly different claim:

since the 1800s, transitions from net forest loss to gain have coincided with a switch within nations from subsistence to market oriented agriculture. Today the growth or decline of a nation’s forest resources correlates strongly to the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

[…]

The study attributes forest expansion to several factors that have outweighed the impacts of population growth and improving diets. They include:

  • Urbanization, which draws farmers off marginal rural lands
  • Evolution from a subsistence regime to market economy, which further concentrates farming to the best lands
  • Better agricultural technologies and yields, relieving the need to clear new agricultural land
  • Better transportation, communication, storage, processing, and consumer behavior, reducing food waste
  • The availability of alternatives to wood as a fuel

Vilma Sandström underlines that another factor requires detailed impact assessment: developed nations increasingly outsource their resource needs to others abroad through international trade. Earlier research suggested that growing stock stops decreasing at a per capita income threshold at US$ 4,600 (in 2003 dollars). Today the threshold is likely closer to $20,000 dollars income per capita.

What is immediately obvious is the highly unexpected suggestion that the driver of deforestation is, in appropriately non-linear character, the development of the capitalist mode of production itself. Of particular note is the elimination of subsistence agriculture—that is, agriculture produced for the direct consumption of the household, or perhaps the small community—and the movement towards high-yield industrialized agriculture that distributes its output via the market. This point is, of course, coupled to the pertinent issue of urbanization: the decline of subsistence agriculture is directly correlated to the rise of a mobile workforce that goes in pursuit of employment, which generally entails going where capital is the most concentrated, i.e. the city. What the Helsinki study is describing, in other words, is the very dynamics sketched out by Marx, and further elaborated by those theorists that suggest that primitive accumulation is not a one-off event, but an ongoing, continual process of dispossession.

But it also illustrates the other side of this process, the progressive element that makes the capitalist mode of production such a revolutionary force. Dispossession itself is double-faced, oscillating between impoverishment and the radical increase of living standards, but the role of technology and scientific as motive forces alongside this dispossession and marketization must be highlighted. By concentrating agricultural production, by minimizing land-use through high-yield techniques, and by managing both agricultural and non-agricultural land through forest management and other conservation techniques, the trajectory of development appears angled, at least in part, to what the sort of situation Marx anticipated (as I briefly detailed in my post on Eco-Marx):

…The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production… Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society.

I don’t want to overstate the case, of course, and certainly the report deserves deeper scrutiny, especially in relation to other claims that emphasize the role of C02 in reforestation (not to mention the negative externalities that have arisen to the side of industrial agriculture, from the immense way to the problem of run-off to its own emissions). Nonetheless, it clearly illustrates a lesson, vital in this time in which limited, localist production, permaculture, and other small-scale food production techniques are being privileged: to position oneself against the capitalist system does not mean we do not have to refuse to recognize the progressive elements of the system, for it is precisely these elements—and the ultimate promises which they are denied—that are the building blocs of the future world.

Ephemeralization

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As a nice little rejoinder to the previous post, which in no small part dealt with Bataille’s energeticist diagram of the general and restricted economies, here is a bit from R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1981 book Critical Path on a somewhat related question:

All technical evolution has a fundamental behavior pattern. First there is scientific discovery of a generalized principle, which occurs as a subjective realization by an experimentally probing individual. Next comes objective employment of that principle in a special case invention. Next the invention is reduced to practice. This gives humanity an increased technical advantage over the physical environment. If successful as a tool of society, the invention is used in bigger, swifter, and everyday ways. For instance, it goes progressively from a little steel steamship to ever-bigger fleets of constantly swifter, higher-powered ocean giants.

There comes a time, however, when we discover other ways of doing the same task more economically—as, for instance, when we discover that a 200-ton transoceanic jet airplane—considered on an annual round-trip frequency basis—can outperform the passenger-carrying capability of the 85,000-ton Queen Mary.

All the technical curves rise in tonnage and volumetric size to reach a “giant” peak, after which progressive miniaturization sets in. After that, a new and more economical art takes over and then goes through the same cycle of doing progressively more with less, first by getting bigger and taking ad- vantage, for instance, of the fact that doubling the length of a ship increases its wetted surface fourfold but increases its payload volume eightfold. In- as much as the cost of driving progressively bigger ships through the water at a given speed increases in direct proportion to the increase in friction of the wetted surface, the eightfolding of payload volume gained with each fourfolding of wetted surface means twice as much profit for the same effort each time the ship’s length is doubled.

This principle of advantage gain through geometric size increase holds true for ships of both air and water. Eventually doubling of length of sea- going ships finally runs into trouble. For instance, an ocean liner made more than 1000 feet long would have to span between two giant waves and would have to be doubled in size to do so. If doubled in size once more, however, she could no longer be accommodated by the sizes of the great world canals, dry docks, or harbor depths.

At this point the miniaturization of doing more with less first ensues through substitution of an entirely new art—David’s slingshot over Goliath’s club operated from beyond reach of the giant.

This overall and inexorable trending to do more with less is known sum-totally as “progressive ephemeralization.” Ephemeralization trends toward an ultimate doing of everything with nothing at all, which is a trend of the omniweighable physical to be mastered by the omniweightless metaphysics of intellect. (Critical Path, 233-234)

“Ephermeralization trends toward an ultimate doing of everything with nothing at all”—in conceiving of long-range technical tendencies in such a way, Fuller finds a way to slip through the grasp of the double pincer that has characterized the dominant attitudes towards techno-scientific complexes in the period of late modernity. Two phrases sum up the sides of this pincer: bigger is bigger and small is beautiful. More ideological declaration than something derived from any truly rigorous exegesis, the first is the technocratic zeal at the spectacle of Galbrathian excess (a zeal that is, admittedly, close to this writer’s heart), while the second is the unbearable tweeness of the small and the local, the organicist circuit that lashes the metropolitan hipster to the back-to-the-land trad.

More with less, on the other hand, indexes a progressive involution that charts a simultaneous and interrelated falling number of of  inputs (and wasteful outputs) and increasing efficiency and output capacity. At the level of society development, it’s the raising of carrying capacity—the abstract ability for the earth system to sustain human flourishing—through more effective means that have fewer requirements on the front-end and less negative externalities around back (which is why Timothy Luke is able to argue, quite aptly, that Fuller is presenting an anti-Malthusian environmentalism that takes seriously “human inventiveness against all natural limits with regard to the planet’s cosmic energy, material, and information exchanges in their broadest ecological contexts”).

In John Smart’s strange and perhaps a tad bit woo-y hands, ephemeralization is marshaled under what he describes as STEM compression, the abbreviation drawing together space, time, energy, and matter/mass. For Smart, STEM compression is transcendental structure of universal evolution (that is, the evolution of the universe itself and the things within it); through it the spatial demands that a given system makes fold inward, time horizons rapidly implode to a singularity point, energy rate densities skyrocket (illuminating rising systemic complexity) and the efficiency of matter climbs while the physical density decreases (passing from biological to post-biological, technological substrates). Smart anticipates that the imminent—relatively speaking—horizon flips the Kardashev methodological system on its head by making the “increasing approach to black hole level densities”, not total energy usage, as the measure of civilizational development.

Francis Heylighen, meanwhile, sees in ephemeralization the form of a negentropic mechanism in action:

The net result of the drive towards increasing efficiency is that matter, energy and information are processed and transported ever more easily throughout the social system. This can be seen as a reduction of friction. Normally, objects are difficult to move because friction creates a force opposing the movement, which dissipates energy, and thereby slows down movement, until standstill. Noise plays a similar role in information transmission: over imperfect lines, parts of the signal get lost on the way, until the message becomes uninterpretable.

Physically, friction can be seen as the force responsible for the dissipation of energy and the concomitant increase of entropy (disorder), as implied by the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy increase entails the loss of information, structure, and “free” energy, that is, energy available for performing further work. This energy must be replenished from outside sources, and therefore a system performing work requires a constant input of energy carrying resources. However, the second law only specifies that entropy must increase (or remain constant), but not how much entropy is actually produced. Different processes or systems will produce entropy to varying degrees. Ephemeralization can be seen most abstractly as a reduction of entropy production, meaning that inputs are processed with less dissipation of resources. The result is that, for a given input, a system’s output will contain more usable energy and information, and less noise or waste.

Degrowth or Mastery? Note on ‘Eco-Marx’

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Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. — Grundrisse, Chapter 14.

The good folks over at the Synthetic Zero have debuted a new series of curated articles on the topic of “The Ecological Marx”, highlighting in particular “life-long interest in the relationship between our ‘species being’ and the life conditions within which we evolve as humans and as societies” as a means to gain some sort of purchase on how to deploy these theories in the context of climatological breakdown and the disjunction between industrial progress and ecological durability.

The first essay is one by Gareth Dale titled “The Emergence of an Ecological Marx: 1818-2018”, which posits an Eco-Marx against the oft-critiqued Promethean Marx (these are my terms, not Dale), not one unlike that which has been developed by various theorists like Jason Moore, Paul Burkett, and John Bellamy Foster. Following in the footsteps of the latter, Dale hones in on the so-called ‘metabolic rift’ theory that peppers Marx’s writings and spans the typical division of his work between a ‘young’ and ‘old’ or ‘mature’ phase. This metabolism is a reflection of the interdependence between human and nature which becomes ruptured and divergent with the advent of the capitalist mode of production. The classic example is that of the relationship between soil and agriculture: this production process requires a nutrient-rich soil, but with the arrival of industrial agricultural (Marx was writing in the context of the British agricultural revolution, which saw booming food production following alongside a rapid expansion of the population), the rate at which soil degraded accelerated. This had many implications, ranging from temporary food shortages to an increased demand for guano (usable as a nitrogen and phosphate-rich fertilizer), which in turn spurred the expansion of overseas markets, so on and so forth. Today, we might say that what Marx was grappling with was the persistence of externalities that necessarily arise from developmental processes, precisely due to the sort of metabolic interface that exists between the processes that characterize what we call civilization and those of nature.

For Dale, the realization of the Eco-Marx via the metabolic rift theory means

no longer can Marx be read as a cheerleader for economic growth or material progress. Those who continue to read him in this way should acquaint themselves with his metaphor of human progress under capitalism. It resembles, says Marx, “that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain”.

The newly discovered ‘ecological’ Marx was a sharp critic of the growth paradigm, and in Volume One of Capital he draws attention to the trampling of the natural realm by bourgeois progress.

He then proceeds to offer the following quote from Volume One:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.

But does this, or the overall structure and position of the metabolic rift in the theory really imply a Marx that is against “economic or material growth”? The short answer to this is no, and the slightly longer answer is that to craft a Marx who rejects such things on these grounds to generate a Marx who is, in fact, anti-Marxist—and not in the sense of the pithy “I am not a Marxist quote”. I mean in the sense of a real theoretical antagonism. One would wonder, then, why one would even try to build such a theory through a Marxist frame?

Let’s unpack this a bit more.

Nature holds, as indicated by the metabolic rift theory, a central place in Marx’s philosophy. In the opening blast of Gothakritik (written in 1875, but not published until 1891), Marx tore asunder vulgar interpretations of labor-value theory by declaring “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power”. These words called back to the comments made in the first chapter of Capital, that “[l]labour… as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal, natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself”. Part of what makes the capitalist mode of production unique to human history is the way that it takes ahold of this mediating labor-activity, capturing and twisting and compelling it towards ends that are alien to itself. As described in the quote used by Dale above, the worker comes to robbed, as the capitalist appropriates an increasing share of surplus value.

But whereas one might expect that the revolutionary solution is to create a situation in which the worker receives the full share of the proceeds of their labor, that is, the full value (as the mutualists both old and contemporary might have it), Marx throws a twist. A supersession of the capitalist mode of production entails getting out from under the law of value in full. The worker doesn’t receive the full value; instead, value is eliminated as a category and a substance that organizes society. What’s more is that this is already a tendency at work in the development of the productive forces under capitalism.

Thus we have the situation in which the solution isn’t to halt the undermining of this “source of wealth” or to dial back to some earlier, “original” form (as the above quote might be read as implying, if taken if complete isolation)—it’s to carry out this undermining in a way that capitalism will tend inexorably towards, but fall short of. Similarly, we should disabuse ourselves any notion that ceasing to ‘rob the soil’ will entail falling backwards towards some earlier state of socio-ecological regulation or to sidestep away from the level of development installed by the capitalist mode of production.

One might object at this point and suggest that just because we’re not going backwards doesn’t mean that Marx is continuing to endorse growth or material progress. But to the contrary—he absolutely is. For Marx, the capitalist mode of production as a historical epoch is something of a midway point in which humanity is gradually disembedding itself from domination by nature and coming, instead, to exert its own domination of nature. Hence the following questions from the Grundrisse:

…when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentials, with no presupposition other than the previous historical development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick?

The ‘previous historical development’ here refers, first and foremost, to the capitalist mode of development. This is not a Marx who sees as there being, as Howard Parsons interprets him (in Marx and Engels on Ecology), an absolute contradiction between the development of the productive forces with the “system of nature”. As John Clark points out in his own critique of Parsons, Marx sees this disjunction as less a critical contradiction and more a phenomenon of relative tensions that are capable of rupturing, from time to time, into something that can be detrimental to human development and flourishing.

Furthermore, it stands that if such an absolute contradiction exists as an element in the text, then Marx’s critique of Malthus becomes unintelligible elsewhere, as it posits that contrary to an ultimate limit to growth is a ceiling that is constantly extended and deferred through technological and scientific development. Neither of these were regarded as specifically contrary to the capitalist mode of production, and in the Grundrisse as well as the Gothakritik the Malthusian problem comes to be regarded as something that is solved precisely through what capitalism had already engendered.

This disembedding from nature and expansion of techno-scientific prowess are part and parcel of the same development processes that strike value out from the productive process, and we can easily take them as interdependent, mutually-reinforcing elements. This is because the elimination of value proceeds by way of accelerating gains in productivity, itself dependent on the increasingly mechanized character of production. This process, which is intimately tangled with explosive development of ‘techno-science’ (characterized in the Grundrisse as the general intellect), is inseparable from growth, as it continually marks greater productive capacities through more efficient processes.

At the limit—or barrier—of the capitalist production, a two-fold process unfolds. As the demand for labor is progressively shuttered, the mediating relation that it served, as that vital link between human and nature, is fundamentally and irrevocably transformed. As this occurs, nature itself is subordinated, brought under the control of an industrial system that is increasingly interlinked and automated. Marx’s vision, detailed in the fourteenth chapter of the Grundrisse, depicts how these two processes run together and open the historical beyond the capitalist mode of production:

…to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society. Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. (What holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse.) No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing [Naturgegenstand] as middle link between the object [Objekt] and himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself.

If there is Ecological Marx, it is at once also a Promethean Marx.