[Marxism] The Entropy of Capitalism

Ismail Lagardien ilagardien at yahoo.com
Tue Feb 14 05:25:46 MST 2012

This came through one of my feeds... Would like to hear views from people on this list. Sorry for the length, I know I can get into trouble.

Robert Biel's The Entropy of Capitalism
is a wonderfully accessible, path-breaking work of political economy,
indispensable for understanding our times. It brilliantly combines
Marxist with dynamical systems theory to argue that
capitalism/imperialism is literally in the throes of its demise. It may
linger on in a “cold” imperialist mode for a generation or two but, ever
parasitical both on human society and on the physical environment, it has
now moved into an “autophagous” phase in which it parasitizes the chaos that
it itself creates, “notably in the link between the two sides of imperialism:
militarism (the 'war on terror') and speculative finance capital”.

Historically capitalism has shown itself to be an
adaptive system, but adaptation
has always been high-cost in terms of environmental depletion. This cost
could be hidden or exported to the underdeveloped South for a time, but
it always blows back later. Thus “fossil fuels enabled capitalism to
pretend it could abolish entropy by miraculously expanding value out of nothing,
but eventually the payback is global warming, the drying-up of energy
stocks, and the knock-on effects of both these factors on food”. On
Biel's analysis, which draws on experience in
low-input agriculture, capitalist
agriculture is unsustainable, and an unprecedented food crisis is looming.

The burning question that confronts us today
therefore is: Can capitalism adapt once more by conjuring up a new
regime of accumulation? What comes after the neoliberalism that
announced that neoliberalism is “the end of history”? Biel does not
think that a new regime of accumulation is possible, and elaborates a
complex supporting argument, which he summarizes as follows:

“The problem with capitalism is not per se that it
is lumpy and unpredictable [chaotic and complex - for chaos and
complexity can promote creativity], but that its developmental basis is
extremely narrow, it is uniquely concerned with preserving exploitation,
and that it has painted humanity (and itself) into a corner where we are
imprisoned by feedback loops of repression and environmental

“Preserving exploitation” gives rise to conflict
and struggle, which is at the heart of Biel's analysis. The struggle of
classes and other oppressed groups “would tear society apart” were it
not “kept at bay. Through massively unsustainable environmental demands”,
and it is struggle, not ecological limits as such, that is “the force
which really bounces back the news of impending entropy, signalling a
refusal to tolerate the existing trajectory”. Currently capitalism is in
endgame exterminist mode: “What we are witnessing . is more or less the
threat of a global Easter Island”.

Exhaustion is both quantitative (depletion of
physical resources and ofun-monetarized spheres for commodification) and qualitative (the
undermining of social and economic repair systems, overdetermined by
ecological crisis), and the ruling order is sitting on a time-bomb of
vastly increased social inequality both within the capitalist heartlands
and in the South.

Capitalism's inability to respond creatively and
effectively to the multicrisis humanity is  facing should not
surprise us, as it has been premised from the outset on a contradictory
relationship with nature, leading it to wage war both against the
cultural systems that people evolved historically to manage that
relationship sustainably and against the only
viable current solution, “common-pool resources
and the regimes which naturally evolve to manage them”. When it hit upon
a new neoliberal regime of accumulation in the late seventies, the
ruling order played all its remaining “cards” in one go: 

“the creative destruction of modernism, delocation
of industrial production to Asia, the dissolution of state property, the
furious commodification of all areas of life. This leaves the system
with no fresh 'get-out-of-gaol' card when a new crisis comes along, with
the result that today, when the mode of production unwillingly finds
itself 'in charge' of humanity's response to the ecological crisis, it
is at the same time submerged in an intractable problem of salvaging
*itself*, through the search for a new regime of capital accumulation
which obstinately refuses to materialise”.

The “creative destruction of modernism” had two
main aspects: more efficient exploitation of individual human capacity
in a decentralized way, and exploitation of the creativity that emerges
in complex systems such as social networks. Capitalism has learnt to
cultivate these “in a tame and exploitative form”, but precisely in
virtue of that cribs and contains them rather than allowing them scope
to develop their full, enormous potential. Because spontaneously
evolving complex systems are far more creative than hierarchically
controlled ones, “disorganized capitalism” easily defeated central planned actually existing socialism, but
in so doing it released forces that may assist in its own demise. Today “capitalism
needs to be overthrown not because it is a restriction on central
planning but because it is a restriction on networking and grassroots
capacity” which, if given free rein, are entirely capable of producing a
postcapitalist future where “small local cells of society and economy .
create higher-level order, knowledge and innovation through networking
and emergence”.

Biel argues that the current drive to a non-Eurocentric
re-orientation of the capitalist world system, in which the capitalist
epicentre moves to Asia, does not present a viable alternative. Any move
to a non-Eurocentric world would involve the displacement of capitalism
itself, ultimately because of the ecological constraints on capitalism's
inexorable drive to growth. Meanwhile, globalization has been
accompanied by new and pervasive approaches to organized collective
military domination abroad, and repression and social control at home,
on the part of the Eurocentric (Antlantocentric) ruling order. This “blocks”
the drive to a non-Eurocentric capitalism, while also contributing
mightily to the autophagous “hollowing out” of the core. With the
growing struggles in the South against its status as a “sink” for the
entropy of the North, the real possibility comes into view of a “great
reversal” as the banner of emancipatory social change continues to
migrate, involving a switch to ecologically sustainable democratically
self-organizing local economies and communities, for which there is no real alternative over the longer run,
first in the South and then generalizing.

The overriding moral of the book is that we need
to learn to regard the multicrisis as an opportunity for effecting
sustainable emancipatory solutions rather than as a source of great
danger. Messiness and “disordered phase transitions will be a part of
*any* social development, and are nothing to be afraid of, quite the
contrary”. It is the master-classes who fear change, which in reality is
an essential aspect of human social being and sooner or later spells an end to any exploitative social system.


Ismail Lagardien

Nihil humani a me alienum puto

More information about the Marxism mailing list