Working Undercover in a Slaughterhouse: an interview with Timothy Pachirat (Medium)

Timothy Pachirat, is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, an ethnographic account of his undercover job in a cattle slaughterhouse. Pachirat’s book reveals the timeless human pattern of hidden violence and reluctance to awaken to unpleasant realities that we are all implicated in by the very fact of living together in society. I interviewed him in 2012 as part of my MetaHack interview series .

 

Avi Solomon: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Timothy Pachirat: I was born and raised in northeastern Thailand in a Thai-American family. In high school, I spent a year in the high desert of rural Oregon as an exchange student where I worked on a cattle ranch, farmed alfalfa, and—improbably—became a running back for the school’s football team. Since then, I’ve lived in Illinois, Indiana, Connecticut, Alabama, Nebraska, and New York City working as a builder of housing trusses, a pizza deliverer, a behavioral therapist for children diagnosed with autism, a stay-at-home-dad, a graduate student, a slaughterhouse worker, and as an assistant professor of politics.

 

Timothy Pachirat

Avi: What alerted you to the importance of doing ethnographic fieldwork?

Timothy: Like many mixed-race, mixed-culture, and mixed-language kids, I developed something of an innate ethnographic sensibility by virtue of the complex cultural terrain I grew up in. Long before I’d ever heard the word ‘ethnography,’ for example, I spent my undergraduate fall and spring breaks sleeping alongside and getting to know unhoused men and women on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago as a way of making some sense of the vast inequalities I perceived in American society and in the world. While pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Yale University, it seemed natural to gravitate to a research orientation that would allow me to engage bodily—as participant and as observer—with the lived experiences of people I might not otherwise ever come into contact with. I was learning a lot of fancy theories that were thrilling on paper, and I was learning some powerful techniques of statistical analysis, but only ethnography allowed me to weigh those made-in-the-academy concepts and techniques against the situated, specific, and beautifully complex lived experiences of the actual social worlds those concepts and techniques purported to describe and explain.

 

Avi: Why did you choose to go undercover in a slaughterhouse?

Timothy: I wanted to understand how massive processes of violence become normalized in modern society, and I wanted to do so from the perspective of those who work in the slaughterhouse. My hunch was that close attention to how the work of industrialized killing is performed might illuminate not only how the realities of industrialized animal slaughter are made tolerable, but also the way distance and concealment operate in analogous social processes: war executed by volunteer armies; the subcontracting of organized terror to mercenaries; and the violence underlying the manufacturing of thousands of items and components we make contact with in our everyday lives. Like its more self-evidently political analogues—the prison, the hospital, the nursing home, the psychiatric ward, the refugee camp, the detention center, the interrogation room, and the execution chamber—the modern industrialized slaughterhouse is ‘zone of confinement,’ a ‘segregated and isolated territory,’ in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Invisible,’ and ‘on the whole inaccessible to ordinary members of society.’ I worked as an entry level worker on the kill floor of an industrialized slaughterhouse in order to understand, from the perspective of those who participate directly in them, how these zones of confinement operate.

Avi: Can you tell us about the slaughterhouse you worked in?

Timothy: Because my goal was not to write an expose of a particular place, I do not name the Nebraska slaughterhouse I worked in or use real names for the people I encountered there. The slaughterhouse employs nearly eight hundred nonunionized workers, the vast majority being immigrants from Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. It generates over $820 million annually in sales to distributors within and outside of the United States and ranks among the top handful of cattle-slaughtering facilities worldwide in volume of production. The line speed on the kill floor is approximately three hundred cattle per hour, or one every twelve seconds. In a typical workday, between twenty-two and twenty-five hundred cattle are killed there, adding up to well over ten thousand cattle killed per five-day week, or more than half a million cattle slaughtered each year.

Avi: What jobs did you end up doing there?

Timothy: My first job was as a liver hanger in the cooler. For ten hours each day, I stood in 34 degrees cold and took freshly eviscerated livers off an overhead line and hung them on carts to be chilled for packing. I was then moved to the chutes, where I drove live cattle into the knocking box where they were shot in the head with a captive bolt gun. Finally, I was promoted to a quality-control position, a job that gave me access to every part of the kill floor and made me an intermediary between the USDA federal meat inspectors and the kill floor managers.

Avi: How did you acclimatize to the work?

Timothy: Slowly and painfully. Each job came with its own set of physical, psychological, and emotional challenges. Although it was physically demanding, my main battle hanging livers in the cooler was with the unbearable monotony. Pranks, jokes, and even physical pain became ways of negotiating that monotony. Working in the chutes took me out of the sterilized environment of the cooler and forced a confrontation with the pain and fear of each individual animal as they were driven up the serpentine line into the knocking box. Working as a quality control worker forced me to master a set of technical and bureaucratic requirements even as it made me complicit in surveillance and disciplining my former coworkers on the line. Although it’s been over seven years since I left the kill floor, I am still struck by the continued emotional and psychological impacts that come from direct participation in the routinized taking of life.

Avi: How did your coworkers treat you?

Timothy: I would never have lasted more than a few days in the slaughterhouse were it not for the kindness, acceptance, and, in some cases, friendship of my fellow line workers. They showed me how to do the work, bailed me out when I screwed up, and, more importantly, taught me how to survive the work. Still, there were divisions and tensions amongst the workers based on race, gender, and job responsibilities. In addition to showing the forms of solidarity amongst the workers, my book also details these tensions and how I navigated them.

 

“Knocking” Box

Avi: Who is a “knocker”?

Timothy: The knocker is the worker who stands at the knocking box and shoots each individual animal in the head with a captive bolt steel gun. Of 121 distinct kill floor jobs that I map and describe in the book, only the knocker both sees the cattle while sentient and delivers the blow that is supposed to render them insensible. On an average day, this lone worker shoots 2,500 individual animals at a rate of one every twelve seconds.

Avi: Who else is directly involved in killing each cow?

Timothy: After the knocker shoots the cattle, they fall onto a conveyor belt where they are shackled and hoisted onto an overhead line. Hanging upside down by their hind legs, they travel through a series of ninety degree turns that take them out of the knocker’s line of sight. There, a presticker and sticker sever the carotid arteries and jugular veins. The animals then bleed out as they travel further down the overhead chain to the tail ripper, who begins the process of removing their body parts and hides. Of over 800 workers on the kill floor, only four are directly involved in the killing of the cattle and less than 20 have a line of sight to the killing.

Avi: Were you able to interview any knockers?

Timothy: I was not able to directly interview the knocker, but I spoke with many other workers about their perceptions of the knocker. There is a kind of collective mythology built up around this particular worker, a mythology that allows for an implicit moral exchange in which the knocker alone performs the work of killing, while the work of the other 800 slaughterhouse workers is morally unrelated to that killing. It is a fiction, but a convincing one: of all the workers in the slaughterhouse, only the knocker delivers the blow that begins the irreversible process of transforming the live creatures into dead ones. If you listen carefully enough to the hundreds of workers performing the 120 other jobs on the kill floor, this might be the refrain you hear: ‘Only the knocker.’ It is simple moral math: the kill floor operates with 120+1 jobs. And as long as the 1 exists, as long as there is some plausible narrative that concentrates the heaviest weight of the dirtiest work on this 1, then the other 120 kill floor workers can say, and believe it, ‘I’m not going to take part in this.’

Avi: What are the main strategies used to hide violence in the slaughterhouse?

Timothy: The first and most obvious is that the violence of industrialized killing is hidden from society at large. Over 8.5 billion animals are killed for food each year in the United States, but this killing is carried out by a small minority of largely immigrant workers who labor behind opaque walls, most often in rural, isolated locations far from urban centers. Furthermore, laws supported by the meat and livestock industries are currently under consideration in six states that criminalize the publicizing of what happens in slaughterhouses and other animal facilities without the consent of the slaughterhouse owners. Iowa’s House of Representatives, for example, forwarded a bill to the Iowa Senate last year that would make it a felony to distribute or possess video, audio, or printed material gleaned through unauthorized access to a slaughterhouse or animal facility.

Second, the slaughterhouse as a whole is divided into compartmentalized departments. The front office is isolated from the fabrication department, which is in turn isolated from the cooler, which is in turn isolated from the kill floor. It is entirely possible to spend years working in the front office, fabrication department, or cooler of an industrialized slaughterhouse that slaughters over half a million cattle per year without ever once encountering a live animal much less witnessing one being killed.

 

Cattle Kill Floor Plan

But third and most importantly, the work of killing is hidden even at the site where one might expect it to be most visible: the kill floor itself. The complex division of labor and space acts to compartmentalize and neutralize the experience of “killing work” for each of the workers on the kill floor. I’ve already mentioned the division of labor in which only a handful of workers, out of a total workforce of over 800, are directly involved in or even have a line of sight to the killing of the animals. To give another example, the kill floor is divided spatially into a clean side and a dirty side. The dirty side refers to everything that happens while the cattle’s hides are still on them and the clean side to everything that happens after the hides have been removed. Workers from the clean side are segregated from workers on the dirty side, even during food and bathroom breaks. This translates into a kind of phenomenological compartmentalization where the minority of workers who deal with the “animals” while their hides are still on are kept separate from the majority of workers who deal with the *carcasses* after their hides have been removed. In this way, the violence of turning animal into carcass is quarantined amongst the dirty side workers, and even there it is further confined by finer divisions of labor and space.

In addition to spatial and labor divisions, the use of language is another way of concealing the violence of killing. From the moment cattle are unloaded from transport trucks into the slaughterhouse’s holding pens, managers and kill floor supervisors refer to them as ‘beef.’ Although they are living, breathing, sentient beings, they have already linguistically been reduced to inanimate flesh, to use-objects. Similarly, there is a slew of acronyms and technical language around the food safety inspection system that reduces the quality control worker’s job to a bureaucratic, technical regime rather than one that is forced to confront the truly massive taking of life. Although the quality control worker has full physical movement throughout the kill floor and sees every aspect of the killing, her interpretive frame is interdicted by the technical and bureaucratic requirements of the job. Temperatures, hydraulic pressures, acid concentrations, bacterial counts, and knife sanitization become the primary focus, rather than the massive, unceasing taking of life.

Avi: Is anyone working in the slaughterhouse consciously aware of these strategies?

Timothy: I don’t think anyone sat down and said, ‘Let’s design a slaughtering process that creates a maximal distance between each worker and the violence of killing and allows each worker to contribute without having to confront the violence directly.’ The division between clean and dirty side on the kill floor mentioned earlier, for example, is overtly motivated by a food-safety logic. The cattle come into the slaughterhouse caked in feces and vomit, and from a food-safety perspective the challenge is to remove the hides while minimizing the transfer of these contaminants to the flesh underneath. But what’s fascinating is that the effects of these organizations of space and labor are not just increased ‘efficiency’ or increased ‘food-safety’ but also the distancing and concealment of violent processes even from those participating directly in them. From a political point of view, from a point of view interested in understanding how relations of violent domination and exploitation are reproduced, it is precisely these effects that matter most.

 

Auschwitz Death Factory Plan by Sonderkommando survivor David Olere

Avi: Did the death factories of Auschwitz have the same mechanisms at work?

Timothy: I recommend Zygmunt Bauman’s superb book, Modernity and the Holocaust, for those interested in how parallel mechanisms of distance, concealment, and surveillance worked to neutralize the killing work taking place in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. The lesson here, of course, is not that slaughterhouses and genocides are morally or functionally equivalent, but rather that large-scale, routinized, and systematic violence is entirely consistent with the kinds of bureaucratic structures and mechanisms we typically associate with modern civilization. The French sociologist Norbert Elias argues—convincingly, in my view—that it is the “concealment” and “displacement” of violence, rather than its elimination or reduction, that is the hallmark of civilization. In my view, the contemporary industrialized slaughterhouse provides an exemplary case that highlights some of the most salient features of this phenomenon.

Avi: Violence is found hidden in even the most “normal” of lives. How can we spot this pervading presence in our daily life?

Timothy: We—the ‘we’ of the relatively affluent and powerful—live in a time and a spatial order in which the ‘normalcy’ of our lives requires our active complicity in forms of exploitation and violence that we would decry and disavow were the physical, social, and linguistic distances that separate us from them ever to be collapsed. This is true of the brutal and entirely unnecessary confinement and killing of billions of animals each year for food, of the exploitation and suffering of workers in Shenzhen, China who produce our iPads and cell phones, of the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ deployed in the name of our security, and of the ‘collateral damage’ created by the unmanned-aerial-vehicles that our taxes fund. Our complicity lies not in a direct infliction of violence but rather in our tacit agreement to look away and not to ask some very, very simple questions: Where does this meat come from and how did it get here? Who assembled the latest gadget that just arrived in the mail? What does it mean to create categories of torturable human beings? The mechanisms of distancing and concealment inherent in our divisions of space and labor and in our unthinking use of euphemistic language make it seductively easy to avoid pursuing the complex answers to these simple questions with any sort of determination.

Months after I left the slaughterhouse, I got in an argument with a brilliant friend over who was more morally responsible for the killing of the animals: those who ate meat or the 121 workers who did the killing. She maintained, passionately and with conviction, that the people who did the killing were more responsible because they were the ones performing the physical actions that took the animal’s lives. Meat eaters, she claimed, were only indirectly responsible. At the time, I took the opposite position, holding that those who benefited at a distance, delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, bore more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where those with the fewest opportunities in society performed the dirty work.

I am now more inclined to think that it is the preoccupation with moral responsibility itself that serves as a deflection. In the words of philosopher John Lachs, ‘The responsibility for an act can be passed on, but its experience cannot.’ I’m keenly interested in asking what it might mean for those who benefit from physically and morally dirty work not only to assume some share of responsibility for it but also to directly experience it. What might it mean, in other words, to collapse some of the mechanisms of physical, social, and linguistic distances that separate our ‘normal’ lives from the violence and exploitation required to sustain and reproduce them? I explore some of these questions at greater length in the final chapter of my book.

 

Avi: Who was Cinci Freedom? What mythologizing purpose does she serve?

Timothy: I open the book with the story of a cow that escaped from a slaughterhouse up the street from the one I was working in. Omaha police chased the cow and cornered it in an alleyway that bordered my slaughterhouse. It happened to be during our ten minute afternoon break and many of the slaughterhouse workers witnessed the police opening fire on the animal with shotguns. The next day in the lunchroom, the anger, disgust, and horror at the police killing of the animal was palpable, as was the strong sense of identification with the animal’s treatment at the hands of the police. And yet, at the end of lunch break, workers returned to work on a kill floor that killed 2,500 animals each day.

Cinci Freedom was another Charolais cow that escaped from a Cincinnati slaughterhouse in 2002. She was recaptured after several days only with the help of thermal imaging equipment deployed from a police helicopter. Unlike the anoymous Omaha cow that was gunned down by the police, Cinci Freedom became an instant celebrity. The mayor gave her a key to the city and she was provided passage to The Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY, where she lived until 2008.

Although at first glance the fates of the Omaha cow and of Cinci Freedom are very different, I think both responses are equally effective ways of neutralizing the threat posed by these animals. Their escapes from the slaughterhouse were not just physical escapes but also conceptual escapes, moments of rupture in an otherwise routine and normalized system of industrialized killing. Extermination and elevation to celebrity status (not unlike the ritual presidential pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey) are both ways of containing the dangers posed by these moments of conceptual rupture. They also point to the promises and limitations of rupture as a political tactic, for example the digital ruptures that occur with the release of shocking undercover footage from slaughterhouses and other zones of confinement where the work of violence is routinely carried out on our behalf.

Money talks when it comes to acceptability of ‘sin’ companies, study reveals (Science Daily)

Date: July 30, 2014

Source: University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

Summary: Companies who make their money in the ‘sin’ industries such as the tobacco, alcohol and gaming industries typically receive less attention from institutional investors and financial analysts. But new research shows social norms and attitudes towards these types of businesses are subject to compromise when their share price looks to be on the rise.


Companies who make their money in the “sin” industries such as the tobacco, alcohol and gaming industries typically receive less attention from institutional investors and financial analysts.

But new research shows social norms and attitudes towards these types of businesses are subject to compromise when their share price looks to be on the rise. A paper from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found that institutional shareholdings and analysts’ coverage of sin firms were low when firm performance was low but went up with rising performance expectations.

That suggests that market participants may ignore social norms and standards with the right financial reward.

“This is a way to test the trade-off between people’s non-financial and financial incentives. The boundary of people’s social norms is not a constant,” said researcher Hai Lu, an associate professor of accounting at the Rotman School. Prof. Lu co-wrote the paper with two former Rotman PhD students, McMaster University’s Kevin Veenstra and Yanju Liu, now with Singapore Management University.

The paper sheds light on why there can be a disconnect between the investment behaviour of Wall St. and the ethical expectations of ordinary people. It also suggests a worrisome implication that compromising one’s ethical values in the face of high financial rewards can become a social norm in itself.

On the brighter side, the paper also finds that strong social norms still have an influence over people’s behaviour. If social norms are strong enough and the price of ignoring them is high, this may act as a disincentive to disregard them in favour of other benefits.

This is the first study to examine whether the social acceptability of sin stocks can vary with financial performance. The researchers compared consumption and attitudinal data with information on sin firm stocks, analysts’ coverage and levels of institutional investment.

Journal Reference:

  1. Liu, Yanju and Lu, Hai and Veenstra, Kevin J. Is Sin Always a Sin? The Interaction Effect of Social Norms and Financial Incentives on Market Participants’ Behavior. Accounting, Organizations and Society, March 31, 2014 [link]

Luxury cruise line accused of offering ‘environmental disaster tourism’ with high-carbon footprint Arctic voyage (The Independent)

Cruise passengers will pay upwards of £12,000 to see polar bears and humpback whales in their natural habitat – before it disappears

ADAM WITHNALL
Tuesday 29 July 2014

A luxury cruise operator in the US has announced it will offer a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to experience the environmental devastation of the Arctic – using a mode of transport that emits three times more CO2 per passenger per mile than a jumbo jet.

It will be the first ever leisure cruise through the Northwest Passage, only accessible now because of the melting of polar ice, and is being marketed at those with an interest in witnessing the effects of climate change first-hand.

Tickets for the trip, scheduled for 16 August 2016 and organised by Crystal Cruises, will cost between $20,000 (£12,000) and $44,000.

Yet there is no mention on Crystal Cruises’ promotion or FAQ for the journey of the boat’s own carbon footprint.

Up to 1,070 passengers will be taken on the 32-day expedition to see seals, walruses, humpback whales and musk-ox – though the company admits there is “no guarantee” of catching a glimpse of a polar bear.

The bulk of the voyage will take place on the Crystal Serenity, a 68,000-ton, 13-deck ship, though it will also be accompanied by an escort vessel and a helicopter.

Popular Science described the trip as “environmental disaster tourism”, and quoted research which suggests that the carbon footprint of a cruise ship, per passenger per mile covered, is triple that of a Boeing 747 flight.

The company said passengers may be able to see endangered polar bears while on the cruise

The company said passengers may be able to see endangered polar bears while on the cruise

The cruise promotion was criticised by social media users for giving people the opportunity to “see/help ruin the environment”, “watch the ravages of global warming in person and become a human vulture” and take a “high-carbon-footprint cruise to watch polar bears drown”.

World Ocean Observatory wrote: “Is no place safe from our intrusion, waste, and consumption?”

In an FAQ on its website, Crystal Cruises said 14 experts would be accompanying guests on the cruise to give lectures about the impacts on the environment around them of climate change, as well as the “historic” nature of their inaugural journey down the Northern Passage.

Company executive Thomas Mazloum told the website GCaptain: “During this voyage, speakers will enlighten guests on information regarding climate change, and how it has impacted this passage.

“With the recent retreat of polar ice, the time is right for us to lead the way within the travel industry, as Crystal has done throughout our 25-year history.”

Under the heading of “Environmental” on its FAQ, Crystal Cruises said both the main ship and escort vessel would “voluntarily use Marine Gas Oil, a low-sulphur fuel… well in excess of the existing environmental regulations”.

The Pricing of Everything (The Guardian)

The Natural Capital Agenda looks like an answer to the environmental crisis. But it’s a delusion.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 24th July 2014

This is the transcript of George Monbiot’s SPERI Annual Lecture, hosted by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. The lecture was delivered without notes, and transcribed afterwards, so a few small changes have been made for readability, but it’s more or less as given. You can watch the video here.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are witnessing the death of both the theory and the practice of neoliberal capitalism. This is the doctrine which holds that the market can resolve almost all social, economic and political problems. It holds that people are best served, and their prosperity is best advanced, by the minimum of intervention and spending by the state. It contends that we can maximise the general social interest through the pursuit of self-interest.

To illustrate the spectacular crashing and burning of that doctrine, let me tell you the sad tale of a man called Matt Ridley. He was a columnist on the Daily Telegraph until he became – and I think this tells us something about the meritocratic pretensions of neoliberalism – the hereditary Chair of Northern Rock: a building society that became a bank. His father had been Chair of Northern Rock before him, which appears to have been his sole qualification.

While he was a columnist on the Telegraph he wrote the following:

The government “is a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world. … governments do not run countries, they parasitize them.”(1) He argued that taxes, bail-outs, regulations, subsidies, interventions of any kind are an unwarranted restraint on market freedom. When he became Chairman of Northern Rock, Mr Ridley was able to put some of these ideas into practice. You can see the results today on your bank statements.

In 2007 Matt Ridley had to go cap in hand to the self-seeking flea and beg it for what became £27 billion. This was rapidly followed by the first run on a British bank since 1878. The government had to guarantee all the deposits of the investors in the bank. Eventually it had to nationalise the bank, being the kind of parasitic self-seeking flea that it is, in order to prevent more or less the complete collapse of the banking system(2).

By comparison to Mr Ridley, the likes of Paul Flowers, our poor old crystal Methodist, were pretty half-hearted. In fact about the only things which distinguish Mr Flowers from the rest of the banking fraternity were that a) he allegedly bought his own cocaine and b) he singularly failed to bring the entire banking system to its knees.

Where’s Mr Ridley now? Oh, we don’t call him Mr Ridley any more. He sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how our system works.

It is not just that neoliberalism has failed spectacularly in that this creed – which was supposed to prevent state spending and persuade us that we didn’t need state spending – has required the greatest and most wasteful state spending in history to bail out the deregulated banks. But also that it has singularly failed to create the great society of innovators and entrepreneurs that we were promised by the originators of this doctrine, by people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who insisted that it would create a society of entrepreneurs.

As Thomas Piketty, a name which is on everybody’s lips at the moment, so adeptly demonstrates in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, what has happened over the past thirty years or so has been a great resurgence of patrimonial capitalism, of a rentier economy, in which you make far more money either by owning capital or by positioning yourself as a true self-serving flea upon the backs of productive people, a member of an executive class whose rewards are out of all kilter with its performance or the value it delivers(3). You make far more money in either of those positions than you possibly can through entrepreneurial activity. If wealth under this system were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.

So just at this moment, this perfect moment of the total moral and ideological collapse of the neoliberal capitalist system, some environmentalists stumble across it and say, “This is the answer to saving the natural world.” And they devise a series of ideas and theories and mechanisms which are supposed to do what we’ve been unable to do by other means: to protect the world from the despoilation and degradation which have done it so much harm.

I’m talking about the development of what could be called the Natural Capital Agenda: the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it.

Sorry, did I say nature? We don’t call it that any more. It is now called natural capital. Ecological processes are called ecosystem services because, of course, they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests, rivers: these are terribly out-dated terms. They are now called green infrastructure. Biodiversity and habitats? Not at all à la mode my dear. We now call them asset classes in an ecosystems market. I am not making any of this up. These are the names we now give to the natural world.

Those who support this agenda say, “Look, we are failing spectacularly to protect the natural world – and we are failing because people aren’t valuing it enough. Companies will create a road scheme or a supermarket – or a motorway service station in an ancient woodland on the edge of Sheffield – and they see the value of what is going to be destroyed as effectively zero. They weigh that against the money to be made from the development with which they want to replace it. So if we were to price the natural world, and to point out that it is really worth something because it delivers ecosystems services to us in the form of green infrastructure and asset classes within an ecosystems market (i.e. water, air, soil, pollination and the rest of it), then perhaps we will be able to persuade people who are otherwise unpersuadable that this is really worth preserving.”

They also point out that through this agenda you can raise a lot of money, which isn’t otherwise available for conservation projects. These are plausible and respectable arguments. But I think they are the road to ruin – to an even greater ruin than we have at the moment.

Let me try to explain why with an escalating series of arguments. I say escalating because they rise in significance, starting with the relatively trivial and becoming more serious as we go.

Perhaps the most trivial argument against the Natural Capital Agenda is that, in the majority of cases, efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook. And the reason why they are complete and utter gobbledygook is that they are dealing with values which are non-commensurable.

They are trying to compare things which cannot be directly compared. The result is the kind of nonsense to be found in the Natural Capital Committee’s latest report, published a couple of weeks ago(4). The Natural Capital Committee was set up by this Government, supposedly in pursuit of better means of protecting the natural world.

It claimed, for example, that if fresh water ecosystems in this country were better protected, the additional aesthetic value arising from that protection would be £700 million. That’s the aesthetic value: in other words, what it looks like. We will value the increment in what it looks like at £700 million. It said that if grassland and sites of special scientific interest were better protected, their wildlife value would increase by £40 million. The value of their wildlife – like the chalk hill blues and the dog violets that live on protected grasslands – would be enhanced by £40 million.

These figures, ladies and gentlemen, are marmalade. They are finely shredded, boiled to a pulp, heavily sweetened … and still indigestible. In other words they are total gibberish.

But they are not the worst I’ve come across. Under the last Government, the Department for Transport claimed to have discovered “the real value of time.” Let me read you the surreal sentence in which this bombshell was dropped. “Forecast growth in the real value of time is shown in Table 3.”(5) There it was, the real value of time – rising on a graph.

The Department for Environment, when it launched the National Ecosystem Assessment in 2011, came out with something equally interesting. It said it had established “the true value of nature for the very first time”(6). Unfortunately it wasn’t yet able to give us a figure for “the true value of nature”, but it did manage to provide figures for particular components of that value of nature. Let me give you just one of these. It said that if we looked after our parks and greens well they would enhance our well-being to the tune of £290 per household per year in 2060.

What does it mean? It maintained that the increment in well-being is composed of “recreation, health and solace”; natural spaces in which “our culture finds its roots and sense of place”; “shared social value” arising from developing “a sense of purpose” and being “able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society” enhanced by “supportive personal relationships” and “strong and inclusive communities”(7). So you put solace and sense of place and social value and personal goals and supportive personal relationships and strong and inclusive communities all together into one figure and you come out with £290 per household per year.

All we require now is for the Cabinet Office to give us a price for love and a true value for society and we will have a single figure for the meaning of life.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s 42(8). But Deep Thought failed to anticipate the advent of Strictly Come Dancing, which has depreciated the will to live to the extent that it’s now been downgraded to 41.

It is complete rubbish, and surely anyone can see it’s complete rubbish. Not only is it complete rubbish, it is unimprovable rubbish. It’s just not possible to have meaningful figures for benefits which cannot in any sensible way be measured in financial terms.

Now there are some things that you can do. They are pretty limited, but there are some genuinely commensurable pay-offs that can be assessed. So, for instance, a friend of mine asked me the other day, “What’s the most lucrative investment a land owner can make?”. I didn’t know. “An osprey! Look at Bassenthwaite in the Lake District where there’s a pair of ospreys breeding and the owners of the land have 300,000 people visiting them every year. They charge them for car parking and they probably make a million pounds a year.”

You can look at that and compare it to what you were doing before, such as rearing sheep, which is only viable because of farm subsidies: you actually lose money by keeping sheep on the land. So you can make a direct comparison because you’ve got two land uses which are both generating revenue (or losing revenue) that is already directly costed in pounds. I’ve got no problem with that. You can come out and say there is a powerful economic argument for having ospreys rather than sheep.

There are a few others I can think of. You can, for instance, look at watersheds. There is an insurance company which costed Pumlumon, the highest mountain in the Cambrian mountains, and worked out that it would be cheaper to buy Pumlumon and reforest it in order to slow down the flow of water into the lowlands than to keep paying out every year for carpets in Gloucester.

There were quite a few assumptions in there, as we don’t yet have all the hydrological data we need, but in principle you can unearth some directly commensurable values – the cost of insurance pay-outs, in pounds, versus the cost of buying the land, in pounds – and produce a rough ballpark comparison. But in the majority of cases you are not looking at anything remotely resembling financial commensurability.

So that is Problem One, and that is the most trivial of the problems.

Problem Two is that you are effectively pushing the natural world even further into the system that is eating it alive. Dieter Helm, the Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, said the following in the same report I quoted from just a moment ago. “The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.”(9)

There, ladies and gentlemen, you have what seems to me the Government’s real agenda. This is not to protect the natural world from the depredations of the economy. It is to harness the natural world to the economic growth that has been destroying it. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction. Now, we are told, these devastating processes will protect it.

(Sorry, did I say the living planet? I keep getting confused about this. I meant asset classes within an ecosystem market.)

It gets worse still when you look at the way in which this is being done. Look at the government’s Ecosystems Markets Task Force, which was another of these exotic vehicles for chopping up nature and turning it into money. From the beginning it was pushing nature towards financialisation. It talked of “harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitisations enhance the return on investment of an environmental bond.”(10) That gives you an idea of what the agenda is – as well as the amount of gobbledygook it is already generating.

What we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong? Here we have a sector whose wealth is built on the creation of debt. That’s how it works, on stacking up future liabilities. Shafting the future in order to serve the present: that is the model. And then that debt is sliced up into collateralised debt obligations and all the other marvellous devices that worked so well last time round.

Now nature is to be captured and placed in the care of the financial sector, as that quote suggests. In order for the City to extract any value from it, the same Task Force says we need to “unbundle” ecosystem services so they can be individually traded(11).

That’s the only way in which it can work – this financialisation and securitisation and bond issuing and everything else they are talking about. Nature has to be unbundled. If there is one thing we know about ecosystems, and we know it more the more we discover about them, it’s that you cannot safely disaggregate their functions without destroying the whole thing. Ecosystems function as coherent holistic systems, in which the different elements depend upon each other. The moment you start to unbundle them and to trade them separately you create a formula for disaster.

Problem Three involves what appears to be a very rude word, because hardly anyone uses it, certainly not in polite society. It begins with a ‘p’ and it’s five letters long and most people seem unable to utter it. It is, of course, power.

Power is the issue which seems to get left out of the Natural Capital Agenda. And because it gets left out, because it it is, I think, deliberately overlooked, what we are effectively seeing is the invocation of money as a kind of fairy dust, that you sprinkle over all the unresolved problems of power in the hope that they will magically resolve themselves. But because they are unresolved, because they are unaddressed, because they aren’t even acknowledged; the natural capital agenda cannot possibly work.

Let me give you an example of a system which doesn’t work because of this problem, despite high commensurability, simple and straightforward outputs and a simple and straightforward monitoring system. That is the European Emissions Trading System, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by creating a carbon price.

I am not inherently opposed to it. I can see it is potentially as good a mechanism as any other for trying gradually to decarbonise society. But it has failed. An effective price for carbon begins at about £30 a ton. That is the point at which you begin to see serious industrial change and the disinvestment in fossil fuels we so desperately need to see.

Almost throughout the history of the European Emissions Trading System, the price of carbon has hovered around five Euros. That is where it is today. The reason is an old-fashioned one. The heavily polluting industries, the carbon-intensive industries, which were being asked to change their practices, lobbied the European Union to ensure that they received an over-allocation of carbon permits. Far too many permits were issued. When the European Parliament started talking about withdrawing some of those permits, it too was lobbied and it caved in and failed to withdraw them. So the price has stayed very low.

What we see here is the age-old problem of power. Governments and the Commission are failing to assert political will. They are failing to stand up for themselves and say, “This is how the market is going to function. It is not going to function without a dirigiste and interventionist approach.” Without that dirigiste and interventionist approach we end up with something which is almost entirely useless. In fact worse than useless because I don’t think there has been a single coal-burning power station, motorway or airport in the European Union approved since the ETS came along, which has not been justified with reference to the market created by the trading system.

You haven’t changed anything by sprinkling money over the problem, you have merely called it something new. You have called it a market as opposed to a political system. But you still need the regulatory involvement of the state to make that market work. Because we persuade ourselves that we don’t need it any more because we have a shiny new market mechanism, we end up fudging the issue of power and not addressing those underlying problems.

Let me give you another example: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, overseen by Pavan Sukhdev from Deutsche Bank. This huge exercise came up with plenty of figures, most of which I see as nonsense. But one or two appeared to be more more plausible. Among the most famous of these was its valuation of mangrove forests. It maintained that if a businessman or businesswoman cuts down a mangrove forest and replaces it with a shrimp farm, that will be worth around $1,200 per hectare per year to that person. If we leave the mangrove forest standing, because it protects the communities who live on the coastline and because it is a wonderful breeding ground for fish and crustaceans, it will be worth $12,000 per hectare per year(12). So when people see the figures they will conclude that it makes sense to save the mangrove forests, and hey presto, we have solved the problem. My left foot!

People have known for centuries the tremendous benefits that mangrove forests deliver. But has that protected them from being turned into shrimp farms or beach resorts? No, it hasn’t. And the reason it hasn’t is that it might be worth $12,000 to the local impoverished community of fisher folk, but if it’s worth $1,200 to a powerful local politician who wants to turn it into shrimp farms, that counts for far more. Putting a price on the forest doesn’t in any way change that relationship.

You do not solve the problem this way. You do not solve the problem without confronting power. But what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.

Let me give you one or two examples of that. Let’s start on the outskirts of Sheffield with Smithy Wood. This is an ancient woodland, which eight hundred years ago was recorded as providing charcoal for the monks who were making iron there. It is an important part of Sheffield’s history and culture. It is full of stories and a sense of place and a sense of being able to lose yourself in something different. Someone wants to turn centre of Smithy Wood into a motorway service station(13).

This might have been unthinkable until recently. But it is thinkable now because the government is introducing something called biodiversity offsets. If you trash a piece of land here you can replace its value by creating some habitat elsewhere. This is another outcome of the idea that nature is fungible and tradeable, that it can be turned into something else: swapped either for money or for another place, which is said to have similar value.

What they’ve said is, “We’re going to plant 60,000 saplings, with rabbit guards around them, in some other place, and this will make up for trashing Smithy Wood.” It seems to me unlikely that anyone would have proposed trashing this ancient woodland to build a service station in the middle of it, were it not for the possibility of biodiversity offsets. Something the Government has tried to sell to us as protecting nature greatly threatens nature.

Let me give you another example. Say we decide that we’re going to value nature in terms of pounds or dollars or euros and that this is going to be our primary metric for deciding what should be saved and what should not be saved. This, we are told, is an empowering tool to protect the natural world from destruction and degradation. Well you go to the public enquiry and you find that, miraculously, while the wood you are trying to save has been valued at £x, the road, which they want to build through the wood, has been valued at £x+1. And let me tell you, it will always be valued at £x+1 because cost benefit analyses for such issues are always rigged.

The barrister will then be able to say, “Well there you are, it is x+1 for the road and x for the wood. End of argument.” All those knotty issues to do with values and love and desire and wonder and delight and enchantment, all the issues which are actually at the centre of democratic politics, are suddenly ruled out. They are outside the box, they are outside the envelope of discussion, they no longer count. We’ve been totally disempowered by that process.

So that was Problem Three. But the real problem, and this comes to the nub of the argument for me, is over the issues which I will describe as values and framing. Am I allowed to mention Sheffield Hallam? Too late. In response to an article I wrote that was vaguely about this issue last week, Professor Lynn Crowe from Sheffield Hallam University wrote what I thought was a very thoughtful piece(14). She asked this question: “How else can we address the challenge of convincing those who do not share the same values as ourselves of our case?”.

In other words, we are trying to make a case to people who just don’t care about the natural world. How do we convince them, when they don’t share those values, to change their minds? To me the answer is simple. We don’t.

We never have and we never will. That is not how politics works. Picture a situation where Ed Miliband stands up in the House of Commons and makes such a persuasive speech that David Cameron says, “You know, you’ve completely won me over. I’m crossing the floor and joining the Labour benches.”

That’s not how it works. That is not how politics has ever proceeded, except in one or two extremely rare cases. You do not win your opponents over. What you do to be effective in politics is first, to empower and mobilise people on your own side and secondly, to win over the undecided people in the middle. You are not going to win over the hard core of your opponents who are fiercely opposed to your values.

This is the horrendous mistake that New Labour here and the Democratic Party in the United States have made. “We’ve got to win the next election so we’ve got to appease people who don’t share our values, so we’re going to become like them. Instead of trying to assert our own values, we are going to go over to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not really red; we’re not scary at all. We are actually conservatives.’” That was Tony Blair’s message. That was Bill Clinton’s message. That, I’m afraid, is Barack Obama’s message.

Triangulation possibly won elections – though in 1997 a bucket on a stick would have won – but it greatly eroded the Labour vote across the intervening years. We’ve ended up with a situation where there are effectively no political alternatives to the neoliberalism being advanced by the coalition government. In which the opposition is, in almost every case, failing to oppose. It is in this position because it has progressively neutralised itself by trying to appease people who do not share its values.

As George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist who has done so much to explain why progressive parties keep losing the elections that they should win and keep losing support even in the midst of a multiple crisis caused by their political opponents, points out, you can never win by adopting the values of your opponents(15).

You have to leave them where they are and project your own values to people who might be persuaded to come over to your side. That is what conservatives have done on both sides of the Atlantic. They have been extremely good at it, especially in the United States, where they have basically crossed their arms and said, “We’re over here and we don’t give a damn about where you are. We don’t care about what you stand for, you hippies on the Left. This is what we stand for and we are going to project it, project it, project it, until the electoral arithmetic our stance creates means that you have to come to us.”

So what we’ve got there is a Democratic Party that is indistinguishable from where the Republicans were ten years ago. It has gone so far to the right that it has lost its core values. I think you could say the same about the Labour Party in this country.

This, in effect, is what we are being asked to do through the natural capital agenda. We are saying “because our opponents don’t share our values and they are the people wrecking the environment, we have to go over to them and insist that we’re really in their camp. All we care about is money. We don’t really care about nature for its own sake. We don’t really believe in any of this intrinsic stuff. We don’t believe in wonder and delight and enchantment. We just want to show that it’s going to make money.”

In doing so, we destroy our own moral authority and legitimacy. In a recent interview George Lakoff singled out what he considered to be the perfect example of the utter incompetence of progressives hoping to defend the issues they care about. What was it? The Natural Capital Agenda(16).

As Lakoff has pointed out, these people are trying to do the right thing but they are completely failing to apply a frames analysis. A frame is a mental structure through which you understand an issue. Instead of framing the issue with our own values and describing and projecting our values – which is the only thing in the medium- to long-term that ever works – we are abandoning them and adopting instead the values of the people who are wrecking the environment. How could there be any long-term outcome other than more destruction?

There’s another way of looking at this, which says the same thing in a different ways. All of us are somewhere along a spectrum between intrinsic values and extrinsic values. Extrinsic values are about reputation and image and money. They’re about driving down the street in your Ferrari and showing it to everyone. They are about requiring other people’s approbation for your own sense of well-being.

Intrinsic values are about being more comfortable with yourself and who you are. About being embedded in your family, your community, among your friends, and not needing to display to other people in order to demonstrate to yourself that you are worth something(17).

Research in seventy countries produces remarkably consistent results: these values are highly clustered(18). So, for instance, people who greatly value financial success tend to have much lower empathy than those with a strong sense of intrinsic values. They have much less concern about the natural world, they have a stronger attraction towards hierarchy and authority. These associations are very strongly clustered.

But we are not born with these values. They are mostly the product of our social and political environment. What the research also shows is that if you change that environment, people’s values shift en masse with that change. For instance, if you have a good, functioning public health system where no one is left untreated, that embeds and imbues among the population a strong set of intrinsic values. The subliminal message is “I live in a society where everyone is looked after. That must be a good thing because that is the society I live in.” You absorb and internalise those values.

If on the other hand you live in a devil-take-the-hindmost society where people, as they do in the United States, die of treatable conditions because they cannot afford medical care, that will reinforce extrinsic values and push you further towards that end of the spectrum. The more that spectrum shifts, the more people’s values shift with it.

People on the right understand this very well. Mrs Thatcher famously said, “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”(19) She understood the political need to change people’s values – something the left has seldom grasped.

If we surrender to the financial agenda and say, “This market-led neoliberalism thing is the way forward,” then we shift social values. Environmentalists are among the last lines of defence against the gradual societal shift towards extrinsic values. If we don’t stand up and say, “We do not share those values, our values are intrinsic values. We care about people. We care about the natural world. We are embedded in our communities and the people around us and we want to protect them, not just ourselves. We are not going to be selfish. This isn’t about money”, who else is going to do it?

So you say to me, “Well what do we do instead? You produce these arguments against trying to save nature by pricing it, by financialisation, by monetisation. What do you do instead?”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is no mystery. It is the same answer that it has always been. The same answer that it always will be. The one thing we just cannot be bothered to get off our bottoms to do, which is the only thing that works. Mobilisation.

It is the only thing that has worked, the only thing that can work. Everything else is a fudge and a substitute and an excuse for not doing that thing that works. And that applies to attempts to monetise and financialise nature as much as it does to all the other issues we are failing to tackle. Thank you.”

http://www.monbiot.com

References:

1. Matt Ridley, 22nd July 1996. Power to the people: we can’t do any worse than government. The Daily Telegraph.

2. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/31/state-market-nothern-rock-ridley

3. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674430006

4. http://nebula.wsimg.com/d512efca930f81a0ebddb54353d9c446?AccessKeyId=68F83A8E994328D64D3D&disposition=0&alloworigin=1

5. http://www.persona.uk.com/bexhill/HA_DOCS/HA-05.pdf

6. http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/2011/06/02/hidden-value-of-nature-revealed/

7. http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ryEodO1KG3k%3d&tabid=82

8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers/guide/answer.shtml

9. http://nebula.wsimg.com/d512efca930f81a0ebddb54353d9c446?AccessKeyId=68F83A8E994328D64D3D&disposition=0&alloworigin=1

10. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130822084033/http://www.defra.gov.uk/ecosystem-markets/files/EMTF-VNN-STUDY-FINAL-REPORT-REV1-14.06.12.pdf

11. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130822084033/http://www.defra.gov.uk/ecosystem-markets/files/EMTF-VNN-STUDY-FINAL-REPORT-REV1-14.06.12.pdf

12. http://www.unep.org/documents.multilingual/default.asp?DocumentID=602&ArticleID=6371&l=en&t=long

13. http://www.sheffieldmotorwayservices.co.uk/

14. http://lynncroweblog.wordpress.com/category/valuing-nature/

15. George Lakoff, 2004. Don’t think of an elephant!: know your values and frame the debate. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, USA.

16. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/01/george-lakoff-interview

17. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

18. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

19. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104475

The Compelling Conclusion About Capitalism That Piketty Resists (Truthout)

Thursday, 26 June 2014 00:00

By Fred GuerinTruthout | Op-Ed

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Temporary, like sadness. Temporary, like capitalism. Temporary, like life. (Photo: Dominic Alves / Flickr)

The excesses of capitalism are not simply a question of bad management and a political unwillingness to properly regulate it by imposing the right sort of checks and balances, but symptoms of a fundamentally and irretrievably flawed system that tends toward destruction of human and other life.

The idea of capitalism as an expression of economic freedom that also secures moral and political freedom of thought, or the notion that “free-market” economies are guided by an impartial mechanism of supply and demand – an “invisible hand” to use Adam Smith’s metaphor – are both powerful indoctrinating notions. As such, they bear little resemblance to actual reality. Smith himself never used the word “capitalism,” preferring to call his economics a “system of natural liberty.” In fact, the inner logic of capitalism can be difficult to get hold of simply because there have been different configurations of capitalism throughout history. In its classic form, before the advent of corporations (when there was still an implicit sense of social responsibility, and insatiable greed was considered a vice), capitalism might have appeared less virulent. Additionally, there is reason to believe that capitalism unfolded differently in different countries with distinct political and legal frameworks.

“There is “capitalism” and then there is “really existing capitalism.” What then is ‘really existing capitalism?'”

All of these contingent factors are worthy of consideration in any assessment of capitalism. However, it is also reasonably clear that once we actually look at history, it is difficult not to conclude that pretty muchevery embodiment of capitalism – classical capitalism, oligarchic or corporate capitalism, casino capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism – presuppose similar elements: private property, ownership of the means of production, notions of unlimited growth, the maximization of profit, using wealth to create wealth. They also all embody a form of instrumental rationality, the kind of rationality concerned with maximizing profits and minimizing costs. In its globalized corporate form, capitalism has been able to relentlessly realize this form of instrumental reasoning on a large scale – and thereby show itself as one of the most destructive and undemocratic economic system humans have ever come up with.

Unfortunately, neither propaganda nor abstract economic theory can help us to grasp this fact. The reason is primarily that the latter do not really speak to the false theories of human nature capitalism presupposes. Nor do many of them elaborate capitalism’s legitimating normative-moral or political origins. Most crucially, they are often silent regarding the devastating impact that it has had on the environment since it first emerged during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Chomsky insightfully puts it, “There is “capitalism” and then there is “really existing capitalism.” What then is “really existing capitalism’?

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century gives us a few clues, though not by any means, the whole picture. Replete with startling empirical evidence in the form of charts, graphs, informative statistics, mathematical-logical expressions and astute critical-historical analyses, Piketty’s work draws a number of sobering conclusions about the present dynamics of wealth and income distribution that exposes not merely the dark underside of capitalism but a central contradiction within it. Thus, Piketty concludes “. . . wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages. This inequality expresses a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labor. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.”

The past devours the future. But, what if the bizarre inverted logic of capitalism has always been its real point? What if, under the rubric of capitalism, the powerful elite are given permission to act as if it simply doesn’t matter whether their ever-expanding wealth might actually devour the future, or “wear the world out faster” to borrow a phrase from Orwell? Do they not often appear to live in an all-consuming present – get what you can for yourself right now, and don’t worry about others, or even about tomorrow? Moreover, is not such an attitude, sanctioned by capitalism, the reason why this particular economic system requires endless cycles of economic crisis?

Perhaps Piketty’s point is that if it doesn’t matter to the elite, it should at least matter to us. But if it does matter, then it is up to the rest of us – including experts like Piketty who grasp the reality of capitalism better than anyone else – to imagine real alternatives to such an economic system, to think outside of the present paradigm of endless development, profit maximization and disastrous austerity measures imposed on whole populations. Despite the apparently glaring “logical” contradiction within capitalism, Piketty still holds to the idea that it can be properly disciplined through a progressive annual tax on wealth. It is not the conclusion he should have reached given his thorough and prescient analysis.

Looking at the history of capitalism, it is difficult not to conclude that growing inequality expresses a fundamental property of and not a contradiction within capitalism.

Of course, Piketty is by no means alone in wanting to save capitalism from itself. Capitalism – no matter what its excesses, or how destructive it is for life or democracy – is invariably held as our default economic system, grudgingly acceded to even by popular left-oriented economists such as Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini or Joseph Stiglitz. As Chrystia Freeland unabashedly concludes in Plutocrats, The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, despite all its faults, we continue to need capitalism because, “very much like democracy,” it is “the best system we’ve figured out so far.” [1] Thus, if capitalism appears to go wrong, this is not because it is grounded on a misreading of history, internal contradictions, false theories about nature or human nature, or misguided moral and political presuppositions. Rather, the excesses of capitalism are simply a question of “bad management’ and a political unwillingness to properly regulate it by imposing the right sort of checks and balances.

In fact, Piketty’s proposed wealth tax solution may do more to obscure than resolve the really existing contradictions of capitalism. Looking at the history of capitalism, it is difficult not to conclude that growing inequality expresses a fundamental property of  and not a contradiction within capitalism. Inequality is built into capitalism. If there is a contradiction here it is a material not a logical one. In other words, it is the contradiction between an economic system that is radically indifferent to the health and well-being of the planet as a whole versus the economic, moral and environmental obligation to preserve and sustain such health and well-being.

If I am right that the inner logic of capitalism inevitably leads to a hegemonic, macro-structural world-system of unequal human social, political and economic relations guided by elite greed that does not reflect the best interests of the majority of people, the common good or indeed the good of the planet itself, then Piketty’s assumption that we could ever regain control over an “endless inegalitarian spiral’ by imposing a progressive tax on capital seems, is at best, rather fanciful. A more fitting conclusion in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the efforts of the elite to profit from the latter would be to ask the question whether we should continue advocating for a capitalist system that glorifies profit over people or start thinking about how to reorganize our economy around common goods such as the health and well-being of our present world.

Instead, many contemporary economists repeatedly tell us that our only tenable alternative is to tame capitalist excess through regulative initiatives. This has been done before and it can be done again, the argument goes. Thus, it is claimed that we can and did rein-in or mitigate the severity of capitalist exploitation, and the massive wealth and income disparities that followed from it. However, it should now be abundantly clear that the internal and structural logic of exploitation, wealth-income disparities and the profit-oriented colonization of social and political relations can only be regulated for short periods. It can never be fundamentally altered. Indeed, as Piketty has persuasively argued, relentless exploitation, colonization and massive inequality were only temporarily pre-empted by a war economy and FDR’s regulatory initiatives. By the late 1970’s, the internal logic of capitalism had re-established its hegemonic status and all of the built-in excesses of the capitalist economic system once again became normalized and necessary.

What if . . . we are all conditioned to see the world in terms of individual economic self-interest rather than in terms of common human good or planetary limits, health and equilibrium?

What this tells us is that regulatory reform of capitalism will only be allowed for a brief period. In other words, to the extent that it can obscure or prevent us from perceiving the inner logic of a system of structured inequality, or distract us from the most deleterious effects of capitalism on the environment and on human health and well-being, minimal regulation may be deemed necessary by the elite for a short period of time. However, as Naomi Kleinhas convincingly argued, the “collective vertigo’ caused by wars, economic upheaval, environmental or political crisis, environmental disasters can also be exploited as the perfect means through which a capitalist system of greed takes over markets, amasses fabulous fortunes and bankrupts the wealth of the commons.

Perhaps the refusal to ask critical questions about the viability of capitalism might be explained by the fact that even today many economists still hold onto the mythic assumption that the “impartial” self-regulating market is no more than a theoretical expression of the “order of human nature” itself and not, after all, a product of powerful political and moneyed interests. This belief has distant origins in Thomas Hobbes fear-inspired mechanistic account of human beings who in their natural state are war-like and driven by self-interest. Not only does the latter perspective resonate in many manifestations of capitalist theory, it also underscores a desire to replicate in economic theory what nature apparently prescribes – a war-like disposition disciplined through competitive markets based on innate selfishness. But what if the incapacity to imagine alternatives is not because we are naturally selfish, but simply a function of the reality that in capitalist societies we are all conditioned to see the world in terms of individual economic self-interest rather than in terms of common human good or planetary limits, health and equilibrium?

This perfectly predictable inversion, where government becomes a handmaid to moneyed interest, is precisely the “logic of a capitalist system.”

Over time, the promotion of selfishness as a virtue not only changes the way we look at ourselves, it influences the way we relate to each other and to the planet itself. Instead of citizens who define themselves in relation to common goods, we are reduced, under the selfish orientation of capitalism, to aggregates of self-interested atomistic individuals encouraged to believe that we can continue a lifetime of limitless consumption. Those who are entirely left out of the consumer game – the increasing numbers of homeless, stateless refugees, destitute and imprisoned whose day-to-day life is taken up by the fight for mere survival – are the necessary residue of a global capitalist system.

From its inception, capitalist economic theory has pushed the idea that the market would only be able to regulate itself if it were not subject to external and coercive government interference or regulation. However, the reality is that capitalist accumulation was never actually severed from politics or government, but invariably parasitic upon it. It has always been intimately tied to publicly funded government tax-breaks and subsidies, to war, colonial-imperial expansion, and industrial ambitions. What happened is simply that massive capitalist accumulation was allowed to entirely invert the power relation between moneyed interests and government. Thus, an elite class of bankers, financiers and industrialists (eventually expressing itself through corporate ownership) have become so powerful, they are able to coerce governments and states to go along with whatever is in their minority interest. This perfectly predictable inversion, where government becomes a handmaid to moneyed interest, is precisely the “logic of a capitalist system,” which renders any suggestion of government imposed progressive taxation rather fantastical.

Related to this, faith in the promise of capitalism might also have to do with a kind of wilful blindness about the actual origins of capital. As Karl Polyanyi reminds us, many scholars and economists tenaciously hold to Adam Smith’s idea that the division of labor has always been based upon markets of some kind because our “propensity to barter, truck and exchange one thing for another” is simply ingrainedin the natural order of things. But, clearly we do not need capitalism – the privatizing of wealth and the socializing of costs – to show us how to barter, truck or trade goods. Indeed, capitalism is actually inimical to bartering or trading, precisely because it is driven by individual profit and monopolization, not by the fair exchange of goods. The FTA (Free Trade Agreements), NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are the awful modern exemplars here.

There is nothing impartial about early capitalism’s inextricable relation to colonialism, slavery or plunder for private gain.

Polyani quickly dispels Smith’s historical misreading of the division of labor as structured by capitalism by reminding us that up to Smith’s time such a propensity toward the individual pursuit of unfettered profit based on wage labor “had hardly shown up on a considerable scale in the life of any observed community and had remained, at best, a subordinate feature of economic life . . . “[2]. The historical and anthropological evidence clearly suggests that it was not until the industrial age that the capitalist-inspired “wealth of nations” was realized by a hegemonic economic system guided by self-interested priorities and the exploitation of material goods and human beings in a relentless pursuit of profit for the few. Before this period, our economics were oriented by social, community, tribal and familial concerns that were considered far more important than the private possession and accumulation of goods based wholly on economic self-interest.

A more precise and broad-based historical study would conclude that, in point of fact, there isn’t anything in nature, the human condition, morality or history that necessitates the adoption of capitalism. It would also disclose that there is nothingimpartial about early capitalism’s inextricable relation to colonialism, slavery or plunder for private gain. In point of fact, the historical reality is that market capitalism is intimately tied to a colonial-imperialist political agenda. This imperialist history clearly demonstrates that there is also very little that is “free” about a “free-market” that derives its freedom to accumulate wealth by way of slave labor, slave wages, debt bondage, unjust land confiscation and the expropriation of common lands and resources into private hands. In America, the so-called “free market” wedded private self-interested exploitation of labor with imperialist state interest on a scale that dramatically dwarfed the brutality of old-world Europe. It should not be in the least surprising then that the slave plantation might capture the essence of our modern global capitalist system, insofar as it is built on the premise of extracting maximum labor at minimal cost.

Of course when one looks at history, it is not immediately apparent that the “founding fathers’ of capitalism – John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo – wanted to intentionally construct a system that would entrench massive inequality. The latter figures were highly articulate, systematic, future-oriented thinkers who believed that private property, free trade, competition and laissez-faire capitalism were inherently good, and had an unlimited potential to raise the general welfare of society. However, even here, those who enjoyed the fruits of a capitalist political economy were relatively few – certainly not the working class or slaves. Each of these illustrious thinkers exemplifies in his writings the material contradictions that capitalism represents.

To be fair, from the perspective of the 18th and 19th centuries, the planet did appear to have unlimited potential for growth, not to mention individual and social enrichment.

Moreover, the science of pollution and toxicity of industrial chemicals 200 years ago was nowhere near the advanced state it is now. However, the material contradictions of capitalism are starkly illustrated even in its earliest philosophical foundations. Thus, on the one hand, John Locke’s (1632-1704) political philosophy begins (as against Hobbes’) with the idea that in our “original state of nature,” we are not in a state of war, but in a state of ” ‘perfect freedom’ to order our action, and dispose of our possessions and persons, as we think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” This state of nature, Locke believed, is also a state “. . . of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” [3]

However, on the other hand, not all people were heir to such “perfect freedom” in their “natural state” or otherwise; nor did they have possessions or reciprocal power. In fact, a good many of them were not even treated as “persons” or individuals, but as mere “savages.” There is nothing fair or equal about the fact that Locke’s tremendous wealth was directly the result of investments in the silk and slave trade. Indeed, he believed that important, moneyed land barons should form “a government of slave-owners” and suggested that children over 3 years of age who were from families on relief should attend “working schools” so they would be “from infancy . . . inured to work” [4]. Appearances notwithstanding, the “sacred and inviolable right to property” that Locke espouses is not something either slaves or the laboring classes were granted. The “perfect freedom” was indeed “perfect servitude” of those who were not white Europeans.

Behind the wonderful talk of liberal values, “increasing the common stock of man through money” and individual rights, Locke put forward an absolutist theory of property that would provide legitimacy to the imperialist ambitions of England and wealthy English landowners in America. The problem is that Locke’s morally grounded theory of the right to private property presupposes the expropriation of ancestral native lands, the existence of slavery and the impoverishment of laboring classes. As Ronald Wright has astutely noted, quoting from Senator Dawes in his Allotment Act, the problem with “Indians” is that they lacked “selfishness, which is the bottom of civilization”![5] What we are compelled to conclude here is that these historical facts are not unpredictable events or anomalies of capitalism, but perspectives and practices intrinsic to the expansion of a capitalist economy.

The unavoidable question is why Smith advocated a “capitalist economic system” that glorified unbridled competition – a practice he intuited would inevitably corrupt our “natural sentiments” and deepen a proclivity toward selfish behaviour?

The Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith (1723-1790) believed that not only did competition mitigate the ruthlessness of self-interest, but the providential “invisible hand of the market” would ensure that in promoting our self-interest we would be simultaneously promoting the interests of society, whether we intended to do so or not. But, the rational or enlightened self-interest of Smith’s economic man breaks down fairly quickly within the logic of monopolistic capitalism. Smith, like Piketty, is prescient enough to caution about the monopolistic trajectory of capitalism and the potential that industry and business had for influencing politics in their favour over the good of consumers and society as a whole. Moreover, against the logic of unfettered capitalist accumulation, he also thought laborers should be well paid and the rich and indolent taxed for the benefit of the poor.

At the same time, Smith’s “merchant” is not much different than the modern corporate CEO. A merchant he explains “. . . is not necessarily a citizen of any particular country. It is in a great measure indifferent to him from what place he carries on his trade; and a very trifling disgust will make him remove his capital, and together with it all the industry which it supports, from one country to another.” [6]It is not hard to imagine that the “trifling disgust” classical merchants or modern CEOs experience is a consequence of having unions or governments interfere with their profits by demanding workers receive a living wage.

In the end, the unavoidable question is why Smith advocated a “capitalist economic system” that glorified unbridled competition – a practice he intuited would inevitably corrupt our “natural sentiments” and deepen a proclivity toward selfish behaviour? If the answer is that it is the self-correcting, providential “invisible hand” that reconciles selfishness and the general welfare of society, then Smith’s entire economic system rests on a fiction: There just is no such thing as an “invisible hand,” nor has there ever been any such providential or moral self-correcting mechanism within capitalist economics. Given this, it is difficult not to conclude that Smith (again, like Piketty) did, in fact, fully grasp the adverse effects and inherent material contradictions of capitalism. Nevertheless, he held steadfastly to the idea that a phantasmal occult force (the invisible hand) would enable our natural sympathy with the plight of others and our natural self-interested expression of individual freedom to live peacefully together.

What is startling is not how different, but how similar the speculative capitalist mindset has always been. The early 19th century economist, broker and speculator David Ricardo “. . . made the bulk of his fortune as a result of speculation on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo, using methods that today would result in prosecution for insider trading and market manipulation.”[7] It is not a great leap from insider trading (which Milton Friedman, much later, enthusiastically endorsed) to securities fraud, negligent subprime mortgage lending, unregulated credit default swaps and so on. But it is also evidently true that wealth is  power – power cashed out at the political level. Ricardo, who was able to use his largesse to buy a seat in the UK Parliament, would probably not have had any problem with the Supreme CourtCitizens United decision to remove limits on corporate political donations. Perhaps we have here one of the earliest exemplars of how moneyed interest, power and political ambition are easily woven together in a capitalist political economy. At any rate, it is clear that the very visible hand of the elite class inevitably renders government “by and for the people’ pretty much irrelevant – or better, invisible.

As for economic theory, Ricardo’s assumption that with social progress, the price of labor is “dear when it is scarce and cheap when it is plentiful” might explain why today the superrich have “stopped worrying and learned to love unemployment and under-employment.” As the rich have become even richer since the 2007 financial crisis, the global unemployment rate has steadily increased such that by 2015, 205 million people will be out of work – and this doesn’t even touch those who have given up looking for a job. Of course, Ricardo, like Marx after him, was clever enough to recognize that the interests of wealthy landowners were often in direct opposition to the good of society and would inevitably create tension and upheaval. This did not, however, prevent him from advocating for the abolition of the Poor Law which, he believed, encouraged people to be lazy and irresponsible – “are there no prisons? . . . are there no workhouses?”

Despite some indications to the contrary, Hobbes’ theory of human nature is unambiguously presupposed in Locke, Smith and Ricardo’s elaboration of capitalist political economy. All are essentially in agreement with the idea that we are “by nature” selfish creatures. Perhaps it is only in this sense we can be said to be “equals” – we are all equally selfish. However, such a presupposition, by any objective measure, is simply false. We know today, from abundant empirical, sociological, psychological, genetic, archaeological and anthropological evidence, that Hobbes’ theory of human nature as intrinsically “selfish” is deeply flawed. We are not “naturally” selfish – though we can, indeed, learn to be so. In other words, within a capitalist system it can become trueover over the course of time that an elite few will be chiefly oriented by greed, narcissism or selfishness – and some of the latter not so very far from the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinners!” Dickens describes Mr. “Scrooge” as in A Christmas Carol. Of course, today the latter are no longer viewed as “sinners.” The real problem is that in our present world they are the “glorified masters” of our economies and governments. They are continuously praised, deferred to, considered “above the laws of the land” and allowed to live in a world of unabashed opulence entirely walled off from the rabble of mankind. Succinctly put, in capitalism, the greedy of the world have discovered their ideal legitimating cover: the promotion of a self-serving economics that turns the vice of selfishness into the highest virtue human beings can realize! [8]

History aside, from our own contemporary perspective, we can get a sense of “really existing capitalism’ by virtue of the following thought-experiment, which reveals the latter in its unadorned state. Imagine that we were able, right now, to ask the 7 or so billion people living on the planet whether they would choose an economic system that would inevitably lead to massive wealth and income inequalities, that would severely limit equal opportunity, that would force whole populations to live under perpetual economic austerity, that would erode any possibility of meaningful and democratic political participation, that would devastate the health of the planet and the human body while externalizing the costs of such destruction onto everyone, with the exception of a very privileged few.

Now . . . how many people do you think would actually opt for such an arrangement? Honest answer: Almost no one! The only people who would agree to such a set of conditions would be an infinitesimally small group whose present privileged economic status would be protected and furthered by maintaining the status quo. The fact is that though there are many manifestations of the capitalist system, the intentional logic of capitalism always was, and still is, the same: to protect and perpetuate the power, status and privilege of the few, while impoverishing everyone else.

Given this, you might think that we would seriously question anyone who asserts that capitalism best captures or reflects the essential capabilities, wants, desires or needs of human beings – or that it, in any way, helps to preserve or sustain the resources of the planet for future generations. If anything, capitalism has become the medium where what is worst in us is magnified and given legitimacy – materialism, greed, indifference to the suffering of others, deceitfulness and hubris – while diminishing the importance of justice, benevolence and environmental stewardship. Hopefully, Piketty’s book will be a wake-up call – not a call to fix capitalism, but to overcome it. The fact is that even if a tax on wealth could somehow reconcile the logical contradiction within capitalism, it will do nothing to prevent corporations from their “race to exploit what is left” [9]; it will not stop them from moving us closer to ecological disaster by extracting oil from bituminous sands or minerals from impoverished third world countries; it will not deter the Wall Street mega banks like Goldman Sachs, the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” (to borrow Matt Taibbi’s startling and vivid description) from sucking the life out of national economies; it will not impede the chemical industry from polluting the environment and using whole populations as unwitting research objects for profit; it will not avert the continuing dissolution of democracy by the superrich Koch brothers . . . and on and on.

Notwithstanding all that has been said, it is still conceivable that we could reverse our present “conditioning” by thinking and acting in different ways – by recognizing that, progressively, with the help of others, we could cultivate radically different perspectives and practices (economic and otherwise). But any such effort must assume that we are also acutely aware of the ubiquity and the powerful force of capitalist propaganda. As Henry Giroux reminds us “dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work.”[10]

Above all, the possibility of alternative economic visions, perspectives and practices have to be grounded in the reality that we share a limited world, and that we are and have always been capable of creating an economic system and public policies that preserve the health and well-being of the planet and all of the creatures that inhabit it.

NOTES:

1. Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats, The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Anchor Canada 2012. p. xvi. Freeland is likely drawing from Churchill’s oft-quoted conclusion that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

2. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press 1957 pp. 45-58

3. John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Government”, in Princeton Readings in Political Thought, edited by Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon. Princeton University Press, 1996. pp. 243-4

4. See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2005. pp. 73-75

5. Ronald Wright, What is America: A Short History of the New World Order, Vintage Canada, 2009. p. 116

6. To really understand the tension within Smith’s thought it is helpful to read both An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

7. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Book III, Chapter IV.

8. You can find Ayn Rand’s and Nathaniel Branden’s The virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.

9. See Michael Klare’s The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, Picador, 2012

10. Henry Giroux, “Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism,” Truthout.

David Harvey: “As contradições do capitalismo” (Rede Castor Photo)

11/4/2014, [*] David Harvey entrevistado por Jonathan Derbyshire, Prospect Magazine, UK

The contradictions of capitalism: an interview with David Harvey

Traduzido pelo pessoal da Vila Vudu

David Harvey é professor de antropologia e geografia do Centro de Graduação da City University of New York (CUNY). Dá aulas sobre “O Capital” de Karl Marx há mais de 40 anos e é autor de um “guia de leitura”, em dois volumes, para ler a grande obra de Marx. Essa leitura microscópica de “O Capital” é fruto de uma série de 13 conferências, cujos vídeos Harvey distribuiu online.

Seu livro mais recente é 17 Contradições e o Fim do Capitalismo. O livro começa com uminsight de Marx – que crises periódicas são endêmicas nas economias capitalistas – e oferece uma análise da atual conjuntura histórica. Conversei com o professor Harvey em Londres, semana passada.

Prospect Magazine: No início do livro, o senhor observa, como outros também observaram, que há algo de diferente na mais recente crise do capitalismo, a crise financeira global de 2008:

Seria de esperar que todos – o senhor escreveu lá – tivessem diagnósticos concorrentes a oferecer sobre o que está errado, e que houvesse uma proliferação de propostas de o que fazer para corrigir tudo. O que mais surpreende hoje é a miséria de pensamento novo e de novas políticas.

Por que não há nem diagnósticos nem propostas nem ideias novas?

David Harvey: Uma hipótese é que a concentração de poder de classe que se vê hoje é de tal modo gigantesca, que não há por que a classe capitalista precise ou queira ver qualquer tipo de pensamento novo. A situação, por mais que seja disruptiva para a economia, não é necessariamente disruptiva para a capacidade de os ricos acumularem mais riqueza e mais poder. Assim sendo, há bem claro interesse em manter as coisas como estão. O que é curioso é que havia também, é claro, muito interesse em manter as coisas como estavam nos anos 1930s, mas aquele interesse foi atropelado por Roosevelt, pelo pensamento Keynesiano etc..

O problema da demanda agregada, que era o centro do pensamento nos anos 1930s, é problema de realização, em termos marxistas. As pessoas respondiam a pergunta e, na sequência, entraram num problema de produção, que foi respondido pelo monetarismo e pela economia de oferta. E exatamente hoje, o mundo está dividido entre os que se põem do lado da oferta e querem mais austeridade, e outros – China, Turquia e quase todas as economias em desenvolvimento – que assumem a linha keynesiana.

Mas parece que só há duas respostas – não há “terceira via”. No âmbito do capitalismo, as possibilidades são limitadas. O único modo pelo qual você pode encontrar outra resposta é pôr-se fora do capitalismo, mas ninguém quer nem ouvir falar disso!

Prospect MagazineIsso posto, o senhor aceita, no livro, que há elementos na classe capitalista, na classe intelectual, que reconhecem a ameaça que o senhor identifica e chama de “contradições” do capitalismo. Exemplo notável aí é a discussão do problema da desigualdade.

David Harvey: Credito ao movimento Occupy ter lançado e posto em circulação essa nova conversa. O fato de que temos em New York um prefeito completamente diferente do que havia antes e que disse que vai fazer tudo que puder para reduzir a desigualdade, toda a possibilidade dessa discussão é coisa que brotou diretamente do movimento Occupy. É interessante que todos sabem do que você está falando, sempre que se fala do “1%”. A questão do 1% foi afinal posta na agenda e se tornou objeto de estudos em profundidade, como, por exemplo, o livro de Thomas Piketty, O Capital no século 21 (fr. [1]). Joseph Stiglitz também tem um livro sobre desigualdade e vários outros economistas estão falando do assunto. Até o FMI já está dizendo que há um perigo específico que surge quando a desigualdade alcança determinado nível.

Prospect Magazine: Até Obama já anda dizendo isso!

David Harvey: Mas Obama nada diria sobre isso se o movimento Occupy não tivesse aberto a trilha. Mas quem está fazendo alguma coisa sobre o problema e de que modo alguma coisa estaria sendo realmente mudada? Se se consideram as políticas reais, vê-se que as desigualdades continuam a aprofundar-se. Há reconhecimento apenas retórico do problema, mas não há reconhecimento político, em termos de políticas ativas e redistribuição ativa.

Prospect MagazineO senhor falou de Occupy. No livro, o senhor critica muito duramente o que o senhor chama de “restos da esquerda radical” – a qual hoje, para o senhor, é predominantemente liberal, libertarista e anti-estado.

David Harvey: Tenho uma regra que por definição nunca falha: o modo de produção dominante, seja qual for, e sua articulação política, criam a forma de oposição contra eles. Assim, as grandes fábricas e grandes corporações – General Motors, Ford etc. – criaram uma oposição baseada no movimento trabalhista e nos partidos da social-democracia; o rompimento dessa ordem – e vivemos hoje precisamente o momento desse rompimento – criou esse tipo de oposição dispersa e dispersiva que só sabe usar algumas específicas linguagens para suas reivindicações.

A esquerda não dá sinais de estar percebendo que muito do que diz é consistente com a ética neoliberal, em vez de lhe fazer oposição… Parte do anti-estatismo que se encontra hoje na esquerda casa-se perfeitamente com o anti-estatismo do capital empresarial corporativista.

Preocupa-me muito que não se ouça pensamento da esquerda que diga “Vamos nos afastar dessas conversas e observar o quadro completo”. Espero que meu livro contribua para que tenhamos essa nova conversa.

Prospect MagazineO livro conclui num lugar interessante – com algo como um programa, 17 “ideias para a prática política”. Mas não aparece a pergunta, embora, sim, possa estar implícita no que o senhor acabou de dizer, sobre qual é o veículo apropriado para realizar aquele programa. Não se sabe onde encontrá-lo. Não é óbvio que o encontraremos.

David Harvey: Uma das coisas que temos de aceitar é que está emergindo um  novo modo de fazer política. No presente, ainda é muito espontaneísta, efêmero, voluntarista, com alguma relutância a deixar-se institucionalizar. Como poderá ser institucionalizado é, creio eu, questão aberta. E não tenho resposta para isso. Mas é claro que, de algum modo, terá de institucionalizar-se ou ser institucionalizado. Há novos partidos começando a emergir – o Syrizana Grécia, por exemplo. O que me preocupa é o que comento no livro como um estado de alienação em massa, que está sendo capitalizado amplamente pela direita. Há portanto, sim, alguma urgência em a esquerda tratar da questão de como nós nos institucionalizaremos como força política, para resistir contra uma virada de direita e capturar parte significativa do descontentamento que está nas ruas e empurrá-lo numa direção progressista, não em direção neofascista.

Prospect MagazineO senhor descreve seu livro como tentativa para expor as contradições, não do “capitalismo”, mas do “capital”. O senhor pode explicar essa diferença?

David Harvey: Essa diferença vem de minha leitura de Marx. Pensa-se quase sempre que Marx teria criado alguma espécie de compreensão totalista do capitalismo, mas Marx não fez nada disso. Marx não arredou pé da economia política e manteve seus argumentos sempre na linha de como opera o motor econômico de uma economia capitalista. Se você isola o motor econômico, você consegue ver quais serão os problemas daquela economia.

Não implica dizer que não haverá outros tipos de problemas numa sociedade capitalista – é claro que há racismo, discriminação por gênero, problemas geopolíticos. Mas a questão que me preocupava ao escrever esse livro era outra, mais limitada: como funciona o motor da acumulação de capital?

Já estava bem claro desde o estouro de 2007/8 que havia alguma coisa errada com o próprio motor. E dissecar o que esteja errado com o motor já será um passo na direção de política mais ampla. Esse motor econômico é muito complicado. E Marx criou um meio para compreender o motor econômico, servindo-se de ideias como “contradição” e “formação-de-crises”.

Prospect MagazineMais uma questão de definição: o que é capital?

David Harvey: Capital é o processo pelo qual o dinheiro é posto em ação para que se obtenha mais dinheiro. Mas é preciso muito cuidado, se só se fala de dinheiro, porque em Marx há uma relação muito complexa, como aponto no livro, entre “valor” e “dinheiro”. O processo é de busca de valor para criar e apropriar-se de mais valor. Mas esse processo assume diferentes formas – a forma dinheiro, de bens e mercadorias, processos de produção, terra… Ele tem manifestações físicas, forma-de-coisa, mas, no fundamento, não é coisa: é um processo.

Prospect MagazineVoltemos à noção de “contradição”, que é a categoria analítica central no livro. O senhor fez uma distinção entre os choques externos pelos quais pode passar uma economia capitalista (guerras, por exemplo) e contradições, no seu sentido da palavra. Assim, por definição, contradições são internas ao sistema capitalista?

David Harvey: Sim. Se você quiser redesenhar o modo de produção, é preciso, então, responder as questões postas pelas contradições internas.

Prospect MagazineO senhor identifica três classes de contradições, que o senhor chama de “fundacionais”, as “mutantes” e as “perigosas”. Comecemos pela primeira categoria: o que faz as contradições fundacionais serem fundacionais?

David Harvey: Não importa onde esteja o capitalismo e o modo de produção capitalista, você sempre encontrará essas contradições em operação. Em qualquer economia – seja a China contemporânea, o Chile ou os EUA – a questão do valor de uso e do valor de troca, por exemplo, lá estará, sempre. Há algumas contradições que são traços permanentes de como o motor econômico está montado. E há outras que mudam constantemente ao longo do tempo. Então, eu quis distinguir as que são relativamente permanentes e as outras, que são muito mais dinâmicas.

Prospect MagazineAlgumas contradições fundacionais são mais fundacionais que outras? Um dos traços que mais chamam a atenção no livro é que tudo, no seu modelo analítico, parece derivar, no fundo, da diferença entre valor de troca e valor de uso.

David Harvey: Ora… esse é o ponto inicial da análise. Sempre me chamou a atenção que Marx dedicou muito tempo para demarcar o ponto no qual sua análise começaria; e decidiu começar por aí, porque é o ponto de partida mais universal. Mas o que mais me impressiona – e trabalho com Marx há muito, muito tempo – é o quanto as suas contradições são intimamente interligadas. Você percebe que essa distinção entre valor de uso e valor de troca pressupõe alguma coisa sobre propriedade privada e o Estado, por exemplo.

Prospect MagazineOutra das suas contradições fundacionais é entre “propriedade privada e o Estado capitalista”. Quer dizer: a tensão ou a contradição entre os direitos individuais de propriedade e o poder coercivo do Estado. Agora, imaginemos alguém como Robert Nozick, criado na tradição liberal, Lockeana, que chega e diz que não há aí qualquer contradição. Ao contrário: o papel do estado “mínimo” é proteger a propriedade privada.

David Harvey: Uma das coisas que digo sobre contradições é que elas estão sempre latentes. Por isso, a existência de uma contradição não gera, necessariamente, uma crise. Gerará, sob algumas dadas circunstâncias. Portanto, é possível construir teoricamente a ideia de que tudo que um estado “guarda-noturno” faz é proteger a propriedade privada. Mas nos sabemos que esse estado “guarda-noturno” tem muito mais a fazer, além disso. Há externalidades no mercado que têm de ser controladas; já bens públicos que têm de ser fornecidos – e assim, muito rapidamente, o estado acaba por se envolver em todos os tipos de atividades, muito além de apenas cuidar do quadro legal dos contratos e dos direitos à propriedade privada.

Prospect MagazineO senhor nega que haja qualquer conexão necessária entre capitalismo e democracia. Pode explicar por quê?

David Harvey: A questão da democracia depende muito de definições. Supostamente haveria democracia nos EUA, mas é claro que não há, é uma espécie de farsa, de engodo – é a democracia do poder do dinheiro, não do poder do povo. E minha avaliação, desde os anos 1970s, a Suprema Corte legalizou o processo pelo qual o poder do dinheiro corrompe o processo político.

Prospect MagazineHá um aspecto do poder do estado que avançou para o centro do palco na crise recente e imediatamente depois, sobretudo durante a crise da dívida na Eurozona: falo do poder dos bancos centrais. O senhor acha que a função dos bancos centrais mudou de modo significativo durante a era dos “resgates”?

David Harvey: Evidentemente mudou. A história dos bancos centrais é, ela própria, terrivelmente interessante. Não tenho certeza de que o que o Federal Reserve fez durante a crise tenha tido qualquer base legal. O Banco Central Europeu, por sua vez, é caso clássico do que Marx disse, quando comentou a Lei dos Bancos de 1844, a qual, para ele, teve o efeito de estender e aprofundar a crise de 1847-8 na Grã-Bretanha. Mas nos dois casos, do Fed e do Banco Central Europeu, o que vimos é uma espécie de ajuste no traseiro – como alfaiates fazem com calças apertadas – de grandes instituições e a emergência de políticas que só seriam justificáveis depois do fato. Quero dizer: não há dúvida alguma de que, sim, houve mudanças no front do banco central.

Prospect MagazineHá um conceito ao qual o senhor volta várias vezes no livro: o conceito de “conversão em mercadoria” [também “mercadorização”, ing. commodification (NTs)].

David Harvey: O capital trata, sempre, da produção de mercadorias. Se há terreno não-mercadorizado, ali o capital não entra nem circula. Um dos meios mais fáceis para o capital conseguir penetrar aquele espaço é o estado impor ali um sistema de privatização – ainda que privatize algo que é só ficcional. Os créditos de carbono, por exemplo – trocar direitos de poluir é excelente exemplo de mercadoria criada por processo ficcional, que tem efeitos muito reais sobre o volume de dióxido de carbono na atmosfera, e assim por diante. Criar mercados onde antes não havia mercados é um dos meios pelos quais, historicamente, o capital expandiu-se.

Prospect MagazineO senhor foi pesadamente influenciado pelo trabalho de Karl Polanyi nessa área, não? Especificamente a obra prima dele, A Grande Transformação.

David Harvey: Polanyi não era marxista, mas compreendia, como Marx também compreendeu, que as ideias de terra, trabalho e capital não são mercadorias no sentido ordinário, mas que assumem uma forma de mercadoria.

Prospect Magazine: Um dos aspectos mais impressionantes do livro, pode-se dizer, mesmo, mobilizadores, emocionantes, é o relato que o senhor faz dos custos humanos da conversão em mercadoria – especificamente a conversão em mercadoria daquelas áreas da experiência humana que antes não eram parte do “nexo dinheiro”[orig. cash nexus, exp. de Marx]. Há aí uma conexão com o que o senhor chama de “alienação universal”. O que é isso?

David Harvey: Vivemos há tempos num mundo no qual o capital lutou sem parar para diminuir o trabalho, o poder do trabalho, aumentando a produtividade, removendo o aspecto mental dos serviços e empregos. Quando você vive em sociedade desse tipo, surge a questão de como alguém pode encontrar algum significado na própria vida, dado o que se faz como trabalho, no local de trabalho. Por exemplo, 70% da população dos EUA ou odeia trabalhar ou é totalmente indiferente ao trabalho que faz. Em mundo desse tipo, as pessoas têm de encontrar alguma identidade para elas mesmas que não seja baseada na experiência do trabalho.

Sendo assim, surge a questão do tipo de identidade que as pessoas podem assumir. Uma das respostas é o consumo. E temos um tipo de consumismo irrefletido que tenta compensar a falta de significação de um mundo no qual há bem poucos trabalhos com algum significado. Irrita-me muito ouvir políticos dizer que “vamos criar mais empregos”… Mas que tipo de empregos?

A alienação brota, entendo eu, de um sentimento de que temos capacidade e poder para ser alguém muito diferente do que é definido por nossas possibilidades. Daí surge a questão de até que ponto o poder político é sensível à criação de outras possibilidades? As pessoas olham os partidos políticos e dizem “Aqui, não há nada que preste”. Há, pois, a alienação para longe do processo político, que se manifesta em comparecimento declinante nas eleições; há a alienação para longe da cultura da mercadoria, também, que cria uma carência e o correspondente desejo por um outro tipo de liberdade. As irrupções periódicas que foram vistas pelo mundo – Parque Gezi em Istambul, “manifestações” no Brasil, quebra-quebra em Londres em 2011 – obrigam a perguntar se a alienação pode vir a ser uma força política positiva. E a resposta é sim, pode, mas não se vê nada parecido nos partidos ou movimentos políticos. Viram-se alguns elementos disso no modo como o movimento Occupy ou os Indignados na Espanha tentaram mobilizar pessoas, mas foi coisa efêmera e não amadureceu em ação mais substancial. Mesmo assim, há muito fermento nos campos da dissidência cultural; há algo em movimento, e é fonte de alguma esperança.

Prospect MagazineQuando o senhor discute as contradições “perigosas”, o senhor oferece o que me parece ser uma versão do materialismo histórico de Marx. Quero dizer: o senhor pensa, como Marx, que o presente está grávido de futuro, embora o senhor não pense de modo inevitabilista… Acho também que o senhor não vê nada de inevitabilismo, tampouco, no próprio Marx. Estou certo?

David Harvey: Não vejo, não, nada de inevitabilismo em Marx. Há quem diga que Marx teria dito que o capital desabará sob o peso de suas próprias contradições, e que Marx teria uma teoria mecanicista das crises das crises capitalistas. Mas jamais encontrei uma linha em que Marx tenha escrito coisa semelhante! O que Marx, sim, disse é que as contradições estão no coração das crises e que crises são momentos de oportunidade.

Marx também disse que os seres humanos podem criar a própria história, mas que não escolhem as condições sob as quais criarão a própria história. Para mim, portanto, há um Marx que, se não é libertarista, diz que os seres humanos são capazes de decidir coletivamente, de empurrar as coisas mais para uma direção, que para outra. Marx criticou o socialismo utópico, porque entendia que o socialismo utópico não lidava com o onde estamos. Marx disse que é preciso analisar onde se está, ver o que é viável para nós e, na sequência, tentar construir algo radicalmente diferente.

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Nota dos tradutores

[1] “A Editora Intrínseca comprou os direitos de tradução para o português do Brasil de O Capital no Século XXI, do francês Thomas Piketty. Está em tradução, esperado nas livrarias no segundo semestre de 2014” (deve ser tudo mentira, mas é o que escreveu o Lauro Jardim).

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[*] David Harvey (Gillingham, Kent, 7 de dezembro de 1935) é um geógrafo britânico, formado na Universidade de Cambridge. É professor daCity University of New York e trabalha com diversas questões ligadas à geografia urbana. Seu primeiro livro, Explanation in Geography, publicado em 1969, versa sobre a epistemologia da geografia, ainda no paradigma da chamada geografia quantitativa. Posteriormente, Harvey muda o foco de sua atenção para a problemática urbana, a partir de uma perspectiva materialista-dialética. Publica então Social Justice and the City no início da década de 1970, onde confronta o paradigma liberal e o paradigma marxista na análise dos problemas urbanos.

Prominent Anthropologist Welcomes Football Team Name Trademark Cancellation (American Anthropological Association)

by Damon

June 18, 2014 at 4:31 pm

In a move that was hailed by the anthropological community, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced on Wednesday morning that it had canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name “Washington Redskins” citing testimony and evidence that the Washington, DC- based football team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus in violation of federal trademark laws banning offensive terms and language.

While the decision today means that the team can continue to use the term, the phrase is no longer owned by the organization, meaning it will be difficult to stop others from using the term, and thus limiting its financial benefit to the club.

Dr. Bernard C. Perley, a Native American and anthropologist, released the following statement in the wake of the government’s decision:

Today, I am celebrating the US Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to cancel the six trademark registrations of the NFL Washington professional football team. The Patent and Trademark Office made their decision based on evidence and concluded that the trademark (the “r word”) is “disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered”.

This decision represents the best values of the American people as established in the founding documents of the United States. It also echoes the work of generations of anthropologists who have worked and continue to work with Native American communities to promote social justice for the first peoples of the Americas.

Unfortunately, there are many Americans who will make any excuse to support the NFL and the Washington team in their defense of the disrespectful name. The ruling does not prevent the team from continuing to use the derogatory term and it is likely the team will appeal the decision.

The US Patent and Trademark decision is good news but there is still much work to be done. The public debate over the “r word” has contributed to the growing awareness of the American public regarding the derogatory aspect of the term to many Native Americans. Anthropology can support and enhance that awareness by making public the ongoing work of anthropologists and Native American community leaders in promoting respect and understanding. We can accomplish this by disseminating the inspiring stories of Native American resilience and their contributions to the American experience.”

Dr. Perley is also a member of the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association