Monday, June 10, 2013

Not Your Mother's Marxist

        I have a bit of a reputation among other Peace Corps volunteers in Paraguay. For those who realize it, and even for those who don't, I think people tend to know me as the resident communist among the volunteer community. Sure, I don't help myself out at all by wearing my red-star emblazoned military cap or by relishing in the opportunity/ability to grow out my facial hair (a recently acquired skill that I am keen to exercise while living in the middle of South America), but for what its worth, for all the flack that people give me for whatever perceived political ideologies they think I have, very few have ever bothered to have an actual conversation with me about any of it. 
       I enjoy reading Karl Marx (actually, I like to do so when I am having a particularly bad day as a sort of pick me up), but I also love the works of Amartya Sen, Hernando de Soto, Muhammad Yunus (and to a lesser extent, Jeffrey Sachs) and other developmental economists who could hardly be considered anything but free-market advocates. So my point is that, like the world itself, the picture is never quite so black-and-white and does not fit any sort of ideological mold. But for the record, the hat is awesome and the beard...well, I just personally really like the beard.
       Still, the more I have been thinking about things lately, the world in general and specifically our sustainable future as a species, a certain notion has made its way into the back of my brain and I just can't seem to shake it: maybe Marx was right after all.
       Let me clarify: Marx said a lot of things—about communism, about capitalism, about the state of antisemitism in Europe, about the American Civil war, about social ties in the post-industrial world—lots and lots of things. What I have been fixated on is Marx's critique of capitalism, which in itself could fill several volumes (and in fact does fill several volumes, Das Capital vol. 1, 2, and 3). Anyone who takes a gander at the situation of modern man in our capitalist, but more accurately, our globalized free-market society can see a million manifestations of alienation and exploitation, Marx's two main criticism of the capitalist model. When he leveled such charges, he was of course referring specifically to the condition of the worker under the capitalist/worker relationship. Today, I would be willing to expand this characterization from not just workers (the proletariat/bourgeoisie dichotomization of our world hardly seems appropriate anymore), but to all people, all consumers in a globalized market place.
       But what I believe is most compelling about Marx's critique of capitalism is his contention that such a system sows its own seeds of destruction. The idea that capitalism waxes and wanes, like a perpetual phoenix, forever arising from the ashes of its latest catastrophic crises, is nothing new and is certainly not a criticism restricted to Marx. Actually, it is hardly even universally considered a criticism at all. Such a cycle of expansion and collapse is part of the well established paradigm of modern capitalism and for anyone who has lived through the most recent crises (our 2008 financial meltdown—the biggest and most comprehensive depression in our entire history), it is almost as if we have learned to take it in stride, dolling out bail-out money where needed and externalizing the most egregious costs of epic failure to the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country and around the globe. Never-mind that the austerity doctrine never had any legs to stand on in the first place.
       Still, I believe that Marx's criticism is even more profound than that—and I am not sure whether or not this is what he really meant or if I am just reading too far into his ideas with the benefit of a modern perspective. Modern capitalism, at least according to its current manifestation, its unequivocal reliance on continual economic growth, is bound by things far greater than financial cycles, consumer behavior, and inflation. It is governed, ultimately and inevitably, by physics.
       The production model of capitalism assumes that the value of any commodity can be deduced through the costs of production, that through the process of conversion from raw material to finished product, the inherent value will be reflected in the market price. Note: this is of course a very simple interpretation, but it serves to illustrate the point. Only very recently (within the past few decades) has modern economics begun to realize that the cost of any commodity extends far beyond this limited chain of production. The inherent value of a raw material cannot be reflected in the market price because it is so difficult, and largely beyond the scope of human activity to realize, the value of creating that raw material in the first place.
       Let me give an example: Crude oil sells for what, lets say 150 USD a barrel—that is the current price that the market spits our for the entire chain of production that mines oil from the ground, refines it and transports it to its final location, i.e. your gas tank. But the true value of crude oil resides in how it was created in the first place, through the natural processes involved in ecosystems, photosynthesis and geology.
       Much of the fossil fuels we use today were created during a very unique period in earth's deep history called the Carboniferous period (so named for its abundant production of carbon deposits) around 369 million years ago. During this period, unusually high global temperatures induced hyper-production of vegetation. When this organic-matter died, it fell to the ground, which at the time was mostly swampy and marshy (except in the highest altitudes) due to the very high sea levels (caused by a lack of ice-caps from the very high temperatures). These largely water-logged and anaerobic conditions arrested normal decomposition processes (which require oxygen) and allowed the organic matter to build up into enormous quantities. Over millions of years these huge layers of carbon-rich organic deposits were processed geologically and exposed to unimaginable temperatures and pressures within earth's mantle. The final result is modern day fossil fuels including crude oil, coal and natural gas.
       So, with that brief natural history lesson in mind, lets go back to the original question: how can any market possibly and accurately place a price on this commodity that reflects its true value, the value inherent in the entire chain of production from the natural processes necessary for its formation to the costs of delivering it to our local petrol station? The answer: it probably can't, or at least to do so would mean that gas prices, food prices, pretty much the price of human life on earth would skyrocket. Instead of paying three to four dollars per gallon at the pump, some estimates have us paying anywhere from eight to fifteen dollars per gallon. These prices would be reflected in any number of other ways as well, but most notably in how much we pay for our food, seeing as the average bite of food eaten by Americans has traveled 1,500 miles from its point of production (Bill McKibben, Deep Economy:The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future) and requires exorbitant amounts of fossil fuels for its industrialized production in the first place.
       The reality is that the modern capitalist paradigm, especially as population increase and globalization takes hold, will soon reach the natural thermodynamic limits of our earth and is more-or-less completely incapable of accounting for such a limit through market prices. The 'blind-hand' of the market is just that, blind; it is as inept and flawed as those very people and that very population that holds its reigns. There is nothing supernatural about it, it is in the end, as natural as can be. We rely on its ultimate wisdom at our own peril, but more importantly, at the peril of future generations.
       When Marx said that “capitalism sows its own seeds of destruction”, he could not have possibly had modern globalization in mind, he was instead reacting to the social and economic phenomenon that he saw transforming Europe into something unrecognizable. But today, it seems that that even apart from all the ethical and social transgressions committed by global free-markets (under the doctrine of neo-liberalism), it is perhaps the most practical criticism that may be the most potent: unlimited, unchecked economic growth is unsustainable. It is not a question of morality necessarily, although there is much to be said from this perspective. It is a question of basic physics.
       A sustainable model of free-markets will one day emerge, whether by conscious choice or by basic necessity, and this will likely involve reduced personal consumption, local/seasonal food sourcing, small-scale food and energy production, a lower though still extremely comfortable standard of living (for those of us in the consumption-happy US), and a higher standard of living (for those in the developing world), and a much stronger community fabric made necessary by the limitations of sourcing locally.
       Or maybe this is completely wrong. Maybe the technocrats are right and we will just find another energy addiction to take the place of our fossil-fuel drugs. Maybe we will completely transform our world into something that Marx couldn't have imagined even in his darkest nightmares.
       But I still have hope that maybe our future will not be defined by what we have lost, what we have sacrificed for the sake of those petty material commodities we have gained. Maybe our future will instead be defined by what we have realized we truly value, beyond what any market will ever inform us or try to tell us we should. In that sense, maybe our future will defined by a better sense of appreciation, of understanding, of community. Not Marx's communism, but a communal-ism for the modern age.
       So maybe everyone in the Peace Corps community is more or less right—I am not a communist per se, but in my own way, I am definitely a Marxist. However, if we are throwing labels around, I would like to point out that I am also a humanist, an environmentalist, and an optimist, and it is perhaps these last three that are the most important of all.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. I never thought about that - the price of products on the natural phenomenon that got them to exist in the first place.