[Marxism] Mike Davis on oil supplies

Nicholas Siemensma nsiemensma at yahoo.com.au
Wed May 26 06:17:24 MDT 2004

Melvin wrote:
> lnp3 at panix.com writes:
> M. King Hubbert was a celebrated oil geologist who in 1956  
> correctly prophesized that U.S. petroleum production would peak in 
> the early 1970s, then irreversibly decline. In 1974 he likewise 
> predicted that world oil fields would achieve their maximum output in

> 2000; a figure later revised by his acolytes to somewhere between 
> 2006 and 2010.
> Comment
> It would seem that the "Mark Jones thesis" is not a Marxist thesis 
> but a proposition [pioneered by an intellectual stool pigeon of the 
> bourgeoisie. There is a Marxist approach to the question of the 
> energy infrastructure. 
> My dispute remains what it has always been . . . that comrades have 
> placed the question outside of Marx description of the productive 
> process and the evolution of the needs that the energy infrastructure

> service on the basis of the bourgeois property relations. 
> If you pose any question from the standpoint of the petty bourgeoisie

> and the bourgeoisie  . . . you automatically lose.

Certainly the basis of Marxist analysis is that capitalist accumulation
is a unified system with an immanent logic which leads to crisis
without the intervention of external factors. This standpoint, which we
all share, leads many to regard any attempt to link accumulation with
its material bases as a physiocratic distraction from the central
issues of overproduction, TRPF, etc. I think we need to cast the net
wider and recognise the centrality of these issues, document and
understand them as best we can. Marxism has too often displayed an
anti-physicalist bias in its critique of Greens, neo-Ricardians,
Malthusians etc. Marx himself understood the accumulation process in
terms of use value and exchange value, but only Roman Rosdolsky and
Henryk Grossmann have really explored brute materiality and the
technical aspects of production from a Marxist political economic
standpoint. Grossmann emphasised how the effects on the accumulation
process and the absorption of labour and capital depended on the size
of the physical surplus, not just the quantity of surplus as value.
Moreover, the physical duration of fixed capital had significance for
the business cycle, the development of excess capacity, and militarism
and reduction of the capital base. Efforts to understand the link
between rising organic composition, falling profit rates and entropic
imbalance within the global energy system will need to look seriously
at this work. Of course, Grossmann has been marginalised within Marxist
economics due to his early death, his reputation as a "Stalinist" and
his allegedly monocausal theory of crisis and breakdown. 

Even the great Ernest Mandel censoriously rejected Grossmann's theory
of breakdown. But Mandel himself was involved in a related debate about
the causes (internal or external?) of long waves and production cycles.
Responding to Kondratieff's discovery of 50-year long waves alongside
the shorter business cycle, Trotsky made the following point: 
"The periodicity of short cycles is conditioned by the internal dynamic
of capitalist forces, which manifests itself whenever there is a
market. As for these long intervals that Professor Kondratieff hastily
proposes also to call cycles, their character and duration is
determined not by the internal play of capitalist forces, but by the
the external conditions in which capitalist development occurs. The
absorption by capitalism of new countries and continents, the discovery
of new natural resources, and, in addition, significant factors of a
'superstructural' order, such as wars and revolutions, determine the
character and alteration of expansive, stagnating or declining epochs
in capitalist development" ("The Curve of Capitalist Development").

Can we make such a hard and fast distinction between internal and
external factors? The apparently fortuitous discovery of mineral
resources in California and Victoria in the 1840s were clearly related
to contemporary price deflation and the revaluation of gold, while the
unification of several nations was entwined with railroad development.
Mandel tried to solve the problem by suggesting that profit downturns
were an endogenous outcome of capital's own limits, while upswings were
prompted by exogenous political interventions, wars etc. To this list
of growth requirements might be added a transformed resource/energetic
base and new technologies. Linking the logic of self-expanding value to
fossil-fuel based industrial technologies, such that capitalism is
viewed as historically coterminous with the era of coal and oil use,
was a prime concern of Malcolm Caldwell, who has strongly influenced my
ideas on this matter. Caldwell too has been neglected due to his tragic
early death and his support for the Khmer Rouge.

Melvin P. has used this list to develop an important and highly
original idea about rising OCC and the involution of value and the
commodity form. I've been very grateful for Melvin's discussions of
this thesis, and I remain less sensitive to his periodical polemics
than others, not having come from a Trotskyist background myself. He
has supported David Schanoes' position that techno-organisational
change and rising productivity decreases the unit value of oil, causing
overproduction and a fall in the profit rate which in turn requires the
destruction of excess capacity (attacking Iraq) and price hikes (OPEC
as tool of hydrocarbon capital). New technologies such as horizontal
drilling and NMR drillhead sensors thus increase efficiency and
recovery rates, so we can't talk about any absolute levels of reserves
or scarcity. In this view, the position of conventional reserves is a
basically economic issue. I sympathise with this - in fact, I agree
with reservations: capital's laws of motion do apply to energy
production, which has been subject to the same process of increasing
social productivity of labour and thus declining value and price. The
point to add is that depletion of a commodity such as oil can raise its
value without an underlying change in the technical composition of
capital. While rising labour productivity effected by
techno-organisational development tendentially decreases unit values
and increases organic composition, this is a limited measure which
ignores the depletion and consequent rising prices of the natural
resource. Furthermore, the significance of oil is that sharply rising
energy prices - where there are no perfect substitutes - will raise the
value composition of capital which cannot be counterbalanced by forms
of energy substitution or the cheapening of constant capital, the
development of new technologies and a wave of investment to overcome
constraints. This has obvious significance for transport and
petrochemical-dependent high-yield agriculture. Increased productivity
decreases costs and has some effect on recoverability rates, but even
massive development of the productive forces will buy little time in
the face of exponentially rising demand. 

Whether this abandons the Marxist problematic in favour of some
external "limits to growth", I don't know, but I don't think so. My
only intent is to relate accumulation crisis and TRPF to one of its
determinant factors, which is petroleum dependency. The scope of our
analysis and our political practice must be dramatically broadened to
re-infuse Marxism with real worth, while of course retaining its
revolutionary and anti-imperialist heart and the fundamentals of
accumulation theory. Eco-crisis is not an externality or a marginal
topic for Marxists. There are those who are convinced that we had
better not mess with notions such as carrying capacity, for fear of
turning the science of radical social transformation into superstitious
misanthropy. In fact, this is the very reason to accomplish the
red-green synthesis towards which Mike Davis is making such a fine
contribution: if we want to limit or avoid civilisational and
demographic catastrophe, we cannot restrict Marxist accumulation theory
and its revolutionary politics to the conspectus of overproduction and
relative surplus value. In fact, judging by Melvin's innovative
contributions to this list, he already knows this and is providing his
own unique perspective from which to understand the present situation.
Perhaps he should allow us to do the same.


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