Fwd: Re: [A-List] British empire loyalists no. 94
markjones011 at tiscali.co.uk
Mon Sep 2 13:08:06 MDT 2002
[forwarded from the A-List, by Stan Goff.
Pat Bond's article, to which this responds, is pasted in below.
I feel compelled to weigh in here, and invite criticism, given that I
haven't had time to sit down and work the following reflections out in a
very rigorous way. These are very tentative musings.
Pat Bond has opened up a critically important area of discussion here, one
that scientific socialists in particular need to grapple with at the level
of epistemology, if we are to repair our theoretical roof.
It was Luxemburg who raised this question with regard to imperialism
theory, I think, of the center-periphery dynamic and the question of
material unsustainability. In fact, in this polemical contest between her
and Lenin (who said socialism will be constructed on electrification), she
has been vindicated, I think. It was a glimpse she had, but we now have
the scientific understanding necessary to flesh out this question and to
expand and improve our understanding of the *materialism* in historical
materialism. Marx glimpsed the sustainability issue as well with his
questions about soil degradation and capitalist agriculture, when he was
studying Liebeg. In fact, it is Marx still who forces us back to a
dialectical consciousness, to a critique of the Cartesian separation of
subject and object ( a real issue for ecologists and feminists as well), to
the questions of reification and mystification (that is, epistemology and
In three plus years of (sometimes painful and tedious, but generally very
fruitful) discussions on two international listservs between marxists,
social democrats, deep ecologists, and feminists, some in which Pat Bond
participated, the primacy of epistemology became achingly clear. It was at
the level of "how we know" that we continually encountered our worst
impasses. And one place where misdirection (in the sense of magic tricks)
seemed to often plague both ecologists and (variously orthodox) socialists
was this self-same Cartesianism - human/subject, nature/object - which
quietly led us to uncritically accept a notion of technology as somehow
separated from nature, and as existing independently as it were from social
relations; a fundamental rejection of the most valuable insights of
marxism. It was a real testament to the power of capitalist ideological
hegemony, and leads me to believe that we are way behind the power curve,
so to speak, in the development of theory related to ideology (include here
every scientific insight and every new field of study that occurs along a
continuum reaching from sociology through neurobiology, with semiotics and
linguistics occupying very important spaces).
Alf Hornborg, a Swedish ecologist who has done very important work here
states: "It is not enough to say that the specific *forms* of technology
are socially constructed; ultimately, the whole idea of a technological
'realm', so to speak, rests on social relationships of exchange [I quibble
with him here, as he conflates exchange with production/reproduction,
but...]. This implies that what is technologically feasible cannot be
distinguished from what is socially, i.e. economically, feasible. [Hints of
dependency theory here] If, since Newton, the machine has served as a root
metaphor for the universe, an advocate of a less mechanistic world view
might begin by demonstrating that even the machine is an organic
It is this understanding that helps clarify the interpenetrating relation
between an independent material universe, our interpretations of "reality"
generally, our technical knowledge, our social relations, and the whole
notion of "development."
Let's begin by admitting that "development" and "sustainability" are
problematic concepts, theoretical minefields of the first order, in fact.
There is a value judgement implicit in the notion of "development," if it
can mean anything at all. To simply reduce it to evolution of *whatever*
is tautological. Development is evolution, and evolution is development.
We are chasing our tails. There is a subtext in the connotation of the
term that implies "improvement," and this introduces the question of "for
whom?". (Even if we provisionally accept the bourgeois nonsense that the
"for whom" is everyone, or humanity generally, we are faced with the very
real dilemma that this historical process is consuming the foundation of
its own existence, because "development" is made synonymous with "growth.")
But marxists have done a creditable job of partially resolving this issue
by demonstrating that capitalist development, at least, is based
significantly on the material exploitation of people's labor power,
therefore, all development is socially constructed and historically
contingent. Marxists have also identified the predominant role of specific
technology (instruments of production) in development. (Marxists haven't
done such a great job of escaping dogmatic interpretations of Marx that
ignore the role of unremunerated (women's) labor, and non-monetized, finite
resources from the natural world... but we're getting better. Here is that
Cartesian subject-object relation, wherein men subjugate nature/women.)
"Sustainability," however, requires us to go deeper into our own
materialism and begin to understand accumulation and development globally,
and as a physical (as in laws of physics) phenomenon, and relate that
understanding of physics to our social organization. The most popular
understanding of the term, sustainability, appears to be willfully ignorant
of the most axiomatic forces in the physical universe and how those forces
respond to "development." While this is forgivable in the general
population, where the mass intellect is still so thoroughly commodified and
mystified, it is downright cynical when this willful ignorance is deployed
by the ruling class, and downright astonishing when it is tacitly accepted
by "scientific" socialists.
The latter case is one, I suspect - given my own experience - of our not
having been adequately exposed to physics, in particular, to thermodynamics
(which I might refer to alternatively as "energetics"), which is the aspect
of physics I will dwell on here. But it is also an epistemological problem
if we fail to account for Hornborg's point that there is no such thing as a
technological "realm." Not only do we need to extend our theory more
deeply into materialism this way in order to understand our period, we need
to retroject this insight into an analysis of the collapse of Eastern
European and (possibly now) Asian socialism, which in different ways
(Soviet and Maoist) both adopted an understanding of technology that was
fundamentally undifferentiated from that of capital. (The original Maoist
orientation, in fact, that privileged the countryside, actually
demonstrated a deeper understanding of these issues, but the trajectory of
Chinese socialism, under both internal and external pressure, shifted
toward "market socialism" which has now transformed China into a massive
and growing urban energy sink.)
If by "sustainability," we mean something akin to systemic inputs equalling
systemic outputs - a kind of ecologic/economic perpetual motion machine -
then we have fallen into a trap. Nature does not act that way. Nature is
not in a state of equilibrium, not some cosmic homeostasis. Contrary to
the proverb of Ecclesiastes, There is nothing NOT new under the sun." God
does play dice with the universe, even though the dice are probably loaded.
Matter-energy changes form constantly, sometimes gradually, sometimes
violently, in ways that will never be perfectly penetrable by human
consciousness, and in very non-linear ways. And in our little cranny of
the universe, there has been a dialectical development between our
environment, our interventions in it, and our consciousness.
To be meaningful at all, we have to alter that conception a bit, and arrive
at some approximation of "sustainability" as ensuring some life-essential
matter-energy forms are reproduced indefinitely in this biosphere, of which
we are a part. The torturing of syntax required just to express this
concept in a non-Cartesian way is more evidence of ideological hegemony and
epistemological inadequacy. (Linguistics and semiotics, eh. Or maybe just
my own lack of facility with the language...)
What is thermodynamics, or energetics?
Well, its the study of something we don't understand very well: Energy. I
include a definition at the end of this post. You may refer to it as
necessary to confirm the kinds of assertions that follow related to the
inverse relation of "value" and "entropy."
Everyone has heard me ranting about fossil fuel. I've even been accused of
having an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe. But paranoids might have
real enemies, and obsessives might obsess about real phenomena. (-; It's
not the oil, you see, it's the energy.
Development (as in capitalist core-infrastructure) and underdevelopment (as
in lack of *self-determining* insfrastructure in the exploited periphery)
are interdependent polarities on a shared social axis, where value is
drained from the latter into the former, for the purpose of maintaining a
ceaselessly-expanding accumulation regime (making it ultimately
unsustainable in an economic sense).
Marxists all know that "value", that is, exchange value, is a social
transfer of embodied labor (including unremunerated labor largely from
women, dammit!). Let's think about that same social transfer as the
transfer of energy, just to put this on a strictly physical basis. Later,
I will reiterate why and how the separation of economics from ecology is
completely arbitrary, albeit useful for the purpose of examination.
In our biosphere, we have the most efficient counter-entropic process known
to humanity; photosynthesis. Think of entropy as the level of dissipation
of energy, with dissipated energy being that energy that is less able to
move matter, or do "work." Most of our energy originates from the sun.
Photosynthetic plant life is a self-reproducing set of structures that
"capture" that energy and store it in chemical form (as sugars and
proteins and lipids and so forth). So plants concentrate energy into
low-entropy forms. (Low entropy = more work potential, high-entropy = less
work potential) We actually measure that energy in heat equivalents, like
BTUs or calories or even joules. Even when plants die, they keep a lot of
their stored energy. That's why we can pick up a piece of dead wood, set
it on fire, and it releases a lot of heat. Every time energy is
transferred, there is some wasted, or "dissipated." So a bug eats a leaf
and gets some energy, but some of that energy is lost during the metabolic
process of the bug. So the bug is a higher entropy form than the leaf.
And the bird that eats the bug is still getting energy that originated from
the sun, but the bird is warm-blooded, and she is giving off dissipated
heat constantly. She "wastes" more energy or heat, so she is higher
entropy than the bug. Then the large predator, like the human, eats the
bird for energy. In fact, we are very high entropy forms, because we do
something none of the rest of these species do. We exploit energy inside
our bodies through metabolism, like the other critters do, but we also
exploit energy (and DISSIPATE it) outside our bodies, or extrasomatically.
We burn things. Wood. Coal. Oil. Work is energy dissipation. Humans
have always dissipated a lot of energy. We are entropy's best friends here
on earth. When we make things that work, like machines, these are
dissipative structures. When we use machines that require very low-entropy
inputs, like fossil fuels that are the end result of about a billion years
of patient photosynthesis (remember, we have NO technology that can replace
photosynthesis for counter-dissipation), we are dissipating energy at
breakneck speed. I refer you here to
http://www.tinaja.com/glib/energfun.pdf for a great exposition of this.
Here's the rub. Price (monetized value) is based (at least partly) on
embodied socially necessary labor in the production process. But in a
*growth-driven* (capitalist or socialist) economy, where technology becomes
an ever increasing set of dissipative structures, the energetic base of
that very same economy is undermined. The same process that generates
"growth" or "wealth" generates entropy. Energy itself is productive
potential, if it can be directed by human energy (and consciousness!). But
something unique is added to the accumulation process when energy is traded
as a commodity, *with a price.* At one time, that energy was in the form
of slaves. Now it is wage labor, but even more significantly, fuel.
Exosomatic, super-low-entropy, fossil fuel. The average American home is
using the equivalent physical energy of 50 slaves. We won't even begin to
calculate transportation. So this "commodity" is far more than a
commodity. It is a "force multiplier" of production, but, conversely, it
is also a hugely energy-dissipative process. We must see this process as
Where it is going, in the aggregate, is toward a clear and unbreachable
thermodynamic wall. There is no existing technology that is not
dissipative, and nothing replaces photosynthesis as the fundamentally
essential capturing (counter-entropic) process for energy in our biosphere.
In a sense, a sustainable society (which must be socialist, as I will show
later), will have to take into account a ratio between techno-mass and
biomass. Sustainability will be determined, in the last instance, by the
ability to reduce aggregate dissipation below the aggregate photosynthetic
But aggregations do not tell the whole story. In fact, if we stay with
aggregates, we are reducing our interpretation to an input-output model,
and we are both fetishizing and reifying. Machines and technology are
commodities, socially constructed but sitting in front of us as if
independent in their existence, seen as a combination of material and
knowledge, with social relations concealed. Similarly, energy forms can be
fetishized, not just as a failure to apprehend the concealed social
relations, but as a failure to see their concealed thermodynamic history.
Oil, for example, which has taken hundreds of millions of years to
concentrate energy, has had half its total energy dissipated by combustion
in just over a century.
Marx taught us that false consciousness is largely based on reification,
our predominant epistemological error, wherein we treat an abstraction like
it is a material thing. Social constructions, like growth-development and
technological forms, are now treated like god-given material parameters,
irreducible and inescapable.
This reification serves capital by closing off broader epistemological
options. And the reification of aggregation (above) conceals the reality
of techno-mass concentration in urban, especially core-urban, centers,
which are energy sinks, dissipative concentrations, the equivalent of
economic/ecological black holes that suck in minerals, fossil energy, and
biomass (often through labor itself) from the periphery. What is
per-capita energy use for an average American, as opposed to an average
Haitian? What political reality underwrites this ratio?
Inside these epistemological boundaries, "sustainable development" becomes
a grim oxymoron.
And "growth-development", it must be said, was an external imperative for
encircled socialism (and still is!). But it was EXTERNAL. As much as I
hate to agree with Trotsky on anything, he something right. Value was
rattling at the borders of the revolution. But "growth-development" is not
an external imperative for capitalism. It is intrinsic to it. No system
with property and profit as its motive force can escape this. No system
that fails to rationalize the whole system in accordance with needs (and
one of those needs is energy) in a self-reproducing way, can hope to
prevent humanity from racing over the edge of an abrupt energy step-change
that will result in a massive dieoff of humanity. Inside these
epistemological boundaries, we are trapped in a deadly zero-sum situation,
that Hornborg says we deny and call a "cornupcopia." The Soviet Union was
an economic powerhouse for a time, but without a genuine periphery to
exploit, it collapsed. With that collapse, Russia was not transformed into
a core industrial state, but into yet another economic colony, a new
addition to the periphery, and a dieoff of historic proportions is underway
there now. The rest of us aren't as far behind as we think.
With an entropic material foundation, society itself is now organized in a
way that can only increase disorder. This is the dialectic behind
Are economists still unsustainable?
by Patrick Bond
In economic theory, unquestionably the most famous line ever uttered is the
following: 'I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste
in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that'.
The in-house memo that carried this wisdom was signed more than a decade
ago by the World Bank's chief economist, Lawrence Summers, who later became
US treasury secretary and is now president of Harvard University. Was it
meant to be 'ironic', as Summers claimed? When The Economist magazine
published the leaked memo in early February 1992 (and actually endorsed the
impeccable logic), Bank president Lewis Preston was visiting Johannesburg
and humbly conceded, 'Sometimes very smart people say very stupid things.'
But it wasn't stupid, it was a menu not only for the introduction of
market-based values in the Rio UN Conference on Environment and Development
a few months later. It also served as the clarion call for a subsequent
decade of displacement of pollution to the Third World, and of the
commodification of nature and indeed all elements of life, including water
and even air.
It is time for economists to confess and repent. Our profession led the way
to environmental unsustainability during the go-go 1990s because of the
confidence we had that market forces are the primary determinant of human
behaviour and that they maximise social well-being, so long as market
imperfections are not overwhelming.
Thank goodness that more attention to those imperfections was the hallmark
of a subsequent World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz. His
contributions to 'information-theoretic economics' won him the Nobel Prize
last year. Recognising the need for paradigmatic reform, Stiglitz coined
the term, 'Post-Washington Consensus', and repeatedly took his
International Monetary Fund colleagues across 18th Street to task. Because
of that, he was let go from the Bank in September 1999 and then joined
Columbia University. In the run-up to the WSSD, on August 16, Stiglitz
called for the IMF to be closed down because its economists are incapable
What kinds of reforms have been proposed for the dismal science, to make it
more sustainable? Some, in the tradition of John Maynard Keynes, are
designed to roll back free-market economics because of a recognition that
states must correct imperfections such as insufficient consumer buying
power, and excessively monopolistic behaviour by large corporations.
But perhaps the most powerful environmental accounting in the field of
economics comes from Herman Daly, who also worked in the World Bank before
resigning in frustration. Daly, who moved to the University of Maryland in
1996, argued that we must 'internalise the externalities' associated with
pollution or ecological damage.
Under prevailing conditions, the ready solution is not to build these costs
into the market, but instead simply to displace them to somewhere political
power is negligible and the immediate environmental implications are less
visible, in the name of overall economic growth.
After all, Summers' memo continued, inhabitants of low-income countries
typically die before the age at which they would begin suffering prostate
cancer associated with toxic dumping. And in any event, using productivity
as a measure, low-income Africans are not worth very much anyhow. Nor are
African's aesthetic concerns with air pollution likely to be as substantive
as they are for wealthy northerners.
One of the most devastating critiques of such neoliberal understandings of
environmental economics is University of Oregon professor John Bellamy
Foster's essay on 'The Ecological Tyranny of the Bottom Line'. Foster cites
three fatal contradictions:
. the radical break with all previous human history necessitated by the
reduction of the human relation to nature to a set of market-based
utilities, rooted in the egoistic preferences of individuals;
. the radical displacement of the very idea of value or worth, resulting
from the domination of market values over everything else. It is this
widespread humanistic sense of systems of intrinsic value that are not
reducible to mere market values and cannot be included within a
cost-benefit analysis that so often frustrates the attempts of economists
to carry out contingent value analyses among the general public; and
. [market-based environmental] solutions, while sometimes attenuating the
problems in the short term, only accentuate the contradictions overall,
undermining both the conditions of life and the conditions of production
The reason for this is the sheer dynamism of the capitalist commodity
economy, which by its very nature accepts no barriers outside of itself,
and seeks constantly to increase its sphere of influence without regard to
the effects of this on our biosphere.
An inkling of such problems was recognised in the famous definition of
'sustainable development' offered by Gro Harlem Brundtland's World
Commission on Environment and Development in 1987: 'development that meets
the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs'.
However, Daly offered a tougher definition in order to highlight the
difference between 'growth' and 'development' in a context in which the
earth's capacity to act as a 'sink' reflects the physical ecosystem's limit
to the absolute size of the global economy. Daly sought sustainability in
'development without growth beyond environmental carrying capacity, where
development means qualitative improvement and growth means quantitative
However, using this definition around the World Bank, Daly found, 'just
confirmed the orthodox economists' worst fears about the subversive nature
of the idea, and reinforced their resolve to keep it vague'.
Daly proposed at least four operative policy recommendations for both the
Bank and governments:
. stop counting natural capital as income; . tax labour and income less,
and tax resource throughput more; . maximise the productivity of natural
capital in the short run, and invest in increasing its supply in the long
run; and . move away from the ideology of global economic integration by
free trade, free capital mobility, and export-led growth--and toward a more
nationalist orientation that seeks to develop domestic production for
internal markets as the first option, having recourse to international
trade only when clearly much more efficient.
These make a great deal of sense today. If the Washington Consensus was the
ideology of the late 20th century, can ecological economics and a genuine
recognition of market failure for most of the earth's human inhabitants
inform heads of state negotiating a grand deal in Johannesburg? If so, they
will have to change direction rather dramatically.
(Patrick Bond teaches at Wits University Graduate School of Public and
Development Management in South Africa. His new book, Unsustainable South
Africa, is published by University of Natal Press, Merlin in Britain and
Africa World Press in the US.)
Patrick Bond phone
[Thermodynamics Definition: The study of the laws that govern the
conversion of energy from one form to another, the direction in which heat
will flow, and the availability of energy to do work. It is based on the
concept that in an isolated system anywhere in the universe there is a
measurable quantity of energy called the internal energy (U) of the system.
This is the total kinetic and potential energy of the atoms and molecules
of the system of all kinds that can be transferred directly as heat; it
therefore excludes chemical and nuclear energy. The value of U can only be
changed if the system ceases to be isolated. In these circumstances U can
change by the transfer of mass to or from the system, the transfer of heat
(Q) to or from the system, or by work (W) being done on or by the system.
For an adiabatic (Q=0) system of constant mass, DU=W. By convention, W is
taken to be positive if work s done on the system and negative if work is
done by the system. For nonadiabatic systems of constant mass, DU = Q + W.
This statement, which is equivalent to the law of conservation of energy,
is known as the first law of thermodynamics.
All natural process conform to this law, but not all processes conforming
to it can occur in nature. Most natural processes are irreversible, i.e.
they will proceed in one direction. The direction that a natural process
can take is the subject of the second law of thermodynamics, which can be
stated in a variety of ways. Rudolf Clausius stated the law in two ways:
"heat cannot be transferred from one body to a second body at a higher
temperature without producing some other effect" and "the entropy of a
closed system increases with time". These statements introduce the
thermodynamic concepts of temperature (T) and entropy (S), both of which
are parameters determining the direction in which an irreversible process
can go. The temperature of the body or system determines whether heat will
flow into it or out of it; its entropy is a measure of the unavailability
of its energy to do work. Thus T and S determine the relationship between Q
and W in the statement of the first law. This is usually presented by
stating the second law in the form DU = TDS - W.
The second law if concerned with changes in entropy (DS). The third law of
thermodynamics provides an absolute scale of values for entropy by stating
that for changes involving only perfect crystalline solids at absolute
zero, the change of the total entropy is zero. This law enables absolute
values to be stated for entropies.
One other law is used in thermodynamics. Because it is fundamental to, and
assumed by, the other laws of thermodynamics, it is usually known as the
zero-th law of thermodynamics. This states that if two bodies are each in
thermal equilibrium with a third body, than all three bodies are in thermal
equilibrium with each other.]
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