“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Joshua Clover, The Autumn of the Empire

I'm not sure what to make of it yet, because it's art you know. Joshua works opposite me and I really like his stuff.


Henry Warwick said...

the article completely ignores the 900 lb Gorilla: Resources. Esp. Oil. Arrighi's cycle may be true - it is irrelevant. Empires exist because smaller nations / states / etc are able to find a way to accumulate energy and resources more quickly than its neighbours. Traditionally this was done at point of sword. Now we have drones. Previous empires failed because their means of acquiring resources met the law of diminishing returns. As they diminished, they instituted ever more complex systems to compensate. Eventually these systems become too difficult and expensive in terms of treasure and resources, and the system collapses. (read: Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter) The present USA Empire is no different. The difference is previous empires may have failed systemically, but they were always in a situation of (global) ever increasing resources. We are no longer in such a position. Hence, like the ludicrous book "This Time It's Different", only instead of an eternal Bubble, we are facing an eternal decline.

This is so much more fundamental than Arrighi's grand cycle, that the cycle itself is largely superfluous to the Collapse. Just the sheer weight of the population is straining resources and will only strain them further. Eventually resources give out, and when they do, they don't come back. (The tin mines in Wales during the Roman period - nodules of tin were sticking out of the ground. Welsh Tin production peaked in the 4th century. Rome left shortly thereafter, but the tin didn't return.)

Resource constraints are something empires had to face systemically, but never globally. Now we do. And no amount of money or economics is going to put more oil (or tin or neodymium) in the ground.

jane said...

Henry, while it is surely the case that capital is confronting global resource limits (just as it is confronting global limits in opening new markets, or internalizing new labor inputs), it is simply not the case that they are a root cause of this crisis, nor of the crises that have historically ended modern empires.

This is demonstrably true, both empirically and theoretically. At this moment we are experiencing a classic "accumulation crisis," which is not characterized by depleted resources but by surplus resources: from fallow raw materials to unused capacity to unemployed labor.

There can be an unlimited supply of oil, chick peas, or neodymium — and if can't be put to profitable use in making commodities and bringing them to market, capital won't. Now, the reasons that the profitability might fail are many, and one of these is that it becomes too expensive to extract raw materials. There is little evidence that is the case now. There is, however, a vast amount of evidence to suggest that the market's capacity to absorb new commodities is badly shaken.

You risk an ahistorical account of a historical crisis, essentially repeating Ricardo's claim that the limit to capital expansion was the bearing load of the soil. That proposal has gone the way of Malthus's peak population projections and Say's Law.

A clever fellow noted that Ricardo, faced with crises based in the collapse of profitability, “flees from economics to seek refuge in organic chemistry." Let's totally not do that.

Henry Warwick said...

jane wrote:

There can be an unlimited supply of oil, chick peas, or neodymium

No, there can't. Not now. Not ever. Period. Sorry, game over.

There is not an unlimited supply of anything, as we live on a tiny tiny planet in a very finite universe. Economics has yet to have its existential moment of realisation that existence precedes essence - that materials come before production and needs come before profit. That we live in a world where these simple facts are easily dismissed is more a testament to hubris of civilisation than anything else.