Generalized Resource Shortages as a Historical Crisis of the Social Formation of Capitalism

Emancipation under Conditions that the Left Didn’t Want

State of Nature (summer 2008)
Andreas Exner, Christian Lauk & Konstantin Kulterer / Translation: Joe Keady

If there is a lack of appropriate analysis of environmental processes and societal relations to nature because they don’t fit into the wishful thinking of ‚eternal capitalism, ‚ dangerous ways of ideologically processing the crisis can gain momentum.“

Rising prices for food are increasing hunger, a global recession is waiting in the wings, and at the same time, energy is getting more and more expensive. Within only a few years, the terrain has changed dramatically for left movements. Nonetheless, many people are still holding on to well-known formulas. Unfortunately, they don’t fit the new circumstances.

1. The Age of Peaks

Rising oil prices are debated in very contradictory ways. Some claim that OPEC’s market power is the main source of sky-rocketing energy prices; others criticize the role of speculation or blame oil companies, demand in developing countries, or the war in Iraq.

Studies indicating that rising fuel prices could already be a consequence of peak oil, the maximum rate of oil production, go almost unnoticed. The Energy Watch Group dates peak oil back to 2006; others place it in the coming years. In fact, the crisis isn’t going to wait until the last drop of oil is being pumped out of a Saudi oil field, but begins when the rate of oil production starts to decline and neither the existing demand nor, for that matter, a growing one, can be met. After the peak, oil production will be cut back each year at a rate of two or more percent.

The IEA’s message that the global economy is headed for a „supply crunch“ has also gone nearly unnoticed. Similar tones are heard from the company Total, which claims that oil production is becoming more difficult all the time. Even EU energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, has warned about peak oil. Nothing like this enters the common debate on climate change or registers within mainstream eco-movements. One might wonder about this, since high oil prices were seen as the magic bullet for ecological transformation. Is it possible that even the Greens have secretly based their aspirations on black gold?

Be that as it may, peak oil is only part of the problem. The Energy Watch Group places global peak gas and peak coal in 2025. In Europe, as well as the US, definitive regional peak gas will come earlier. In any case, other fossil fuels will become more expensive when demand is transferred to them, all the more so because the effort necessary to produce gas and coal will increase.

Fossil fuels make up about 80% of worldwide energy use. The lion’s share of renewable resource use is in the traditional use of firewood in the global South. Gas and oil are also the main raw materials for chemical industries. Synthetics, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides are produced from crude oil, and nitrogen-fertilizer manufacturing requires gas (or coal) as well.

Thus we not only have an energy problem, but we also need to reorganize our material flows. Consider the need for synthetic fiber in the textile industry and you can imagine how much of the earth’s surface will be grazed by sheep or covered with cotton or hemp in order to replace oil with biological raw materials. The more surface is needed for material use, the less remains for food production. This dilemma becomes even more dramatic as climate change reduces productivity in agriculture and nutrient fertilizer becomes increasingly scarce after peak gas is reached.

The upshot: as soon as the „underground forests“ of fossil materials grow thin, only surface expansion will remain to make up our material and energy needs. But the world is round and expansion of the energy and material consumption of the few will cost the lives of many, especially if fossil fuels are to be replaced by biomass.

2. From Accumulation to Depreciation

Besides oil, the prices of many kinds of metals are also rising, and the renewable energy system needs a lot of them. Small wonder, then, that the number of newly installed wind-power plants in Germany is declining and that increasing raw-material prices are also hampering the expansion of solar power. To understand why so many activists and theoreticians on the left are fixated on growth, consider a simple fact: the ostensible ecological transformation of capitalism is only possible if it includes profit and growth. It is, however, a mistake to assume that capital will switch to renewable resources on its own as soon as fossil fuel prices rise. The reality is not so: with rising fuel prices all prices rise. Renewable resources won’t become attractive by themselves, and in a global recession, the financial means for green investments will disappear as well. Ecological reconstruction will be left in nothing but half-finished ruins.

If we are to proceed in our reality check, we also have to see that the whole system of energy distribution and use is adapted to fossil fuels: pipelines, oil tankers, all possible motor engines, and simple heating installations. Reconstructing energy provision will not be enough. Massive reconstruction of all of our technologies and infrastructure is required. Of course, as long as capitalist relations of production exist, this rebuilding is only possible if there are real and expected profits. This basic fact constrains state budgets and green government policies as well.

Apart from the bottleneck of capitalist valorization, there exists also a material transition problem: if too-small quantities of fossil resources are invested for constructing renewable material and energy systems over too long a time span, they will, at some point, no longer be sufficient to produce materials and energy in amounts comparable to today. By contrast, scarcity will intensify and growth will slow down if too many fossil (and mineral) resources are directed toward ecological restructuring in too short a time.

Fordism has not only shifted its contradictions towards its periphery, but even into the future. In the 20th Century, intense social struggles led to a specific mode of conflict management that consisted of polluting nature in accordance with growth. This productivist social contract between capitalists and the working class came at cost to the natural resources necessary for survival. Now it is coming back to haunt us, in the form of climate change et al. , in the centers of the capitalist world-system as resources become scarce. At this point social struggles rise again.

As a result, the perspectives of those who bet on a new accumulation regime, in the wake of the fossil-fuel regime, will grow scarce. It is not only clear that the internal contradictions of capitalism have no potential for liberation, but it is precisely this contradictory dynamic that resulted in the increased appropriation of nature. Moreover, it is also clear that capitalist-bourgeois society is not suited for its self-transformation in a Hegelian sense of „Selbstaufhebung, “ but for its self-destruction. Accumulation of capital is also the accumulation of waste and the depletion of natural resources. The empirical data are unambiguous in this regard. It has to be just as clear: an absolute reduction of consumption, emissions, and waste production is impossible as long as capital accumulates.

When the value of fossil (and metallic) raw materials increases because the extraction continuously grows more expensive and brings in smaller returns on investments, the value of societal capital is likewise affected. The value of the means of production increases, including equipment for the extremely capital-intensive and increasingly energy-intensive oil sector while the value of labor power increases as long as the commodified standard of living remains fairly constant. Under this assumption, the amount of time expended on social reproduction increases causing unpaid labor time to be reduced. Consequently the rate of surplus value falls, being nothing other than the relationship between unpaid to paid labor time. Likewise, the degree of value composition of capital, i. e. the relation of dead to (paid) living labor – a relation expressed by capital intensity in terms of prices – will probably increase. But even if we suppose the degree of value composition remains stable, the profit rate will inevitably fall.

The only solution would be to extend labor time, to enhance labor intensity and reduce the standard of living considerably in terms of commodities – provided that the surplus value rate then increases faster than the degree of value composition. However, this 19th-Century accumulation strategy risks everything in the face of social upheaval, and, most of all, it cannot valorize the fossil-driven capital at its existing scale.

Unlike previous crises, this ecological crisis of capital is not paving the way for a new phase of accumulation because it is not just destroying abstract economic value as expressed by money, but also the use value of the affected assets in particular. Destruction of value, as is the normal case in a capitalist crisis, leaves use values – infrastructure, machinery, commodities etc. – mostly untouched. Hence it improves the conditions for surviving capitals to accumulate.

Even if there is a new upswing in a particular region or sector, resource peaks will limit it. Any restricted upswing would also occur on a reduced level of output. Instead of a new regime of accumulation, there comes a global regime of depreciation. Seen from the perspective of capital, the best case would be an „accumulation in retreat, “ functionalizing the rest of the world from the metropolitan bastions in order to change the resource basis in the form of oil and biomass imperialism, thus „financing“ energetically the resource-intensive transition to renewable resources on an industrial scale in the global North.

3. Fetishizing the Crisis

Because the left is still a modernization movement, it has, if anything, a harder time focusing on the age of peaks than the ruling classes. Capitalist relations of production are essentially secondary for the safeguarding of domination. Only access to resources and to people’s living time must be guaranteed and their exploitation sufficiently legitimized.

So we must avoid watching out for a new regime of accumulation that will never come, because in doing this, we lose precious time to adapt to the new situation while the ruling class will use it for a fundamental restructuring. The other danger is that, in misinterpreting the current developments, the left gives space to ideologies fetishizing the ecological crisis. If there is a lack of appropriate analysis of environmental processes and societal relations to nature because they don’t fit into the wishful thinking of „eternal capitalism, “ dangerous ways of ideologically processing the crisis can gain momentum. Such crisis reactions can easily be used to legitimize repression, resource wars, and annihilation of human life.

We all know that according to the dominant perspective, which is by no means the perspective of the dominant classes alone but also that of the dominated, the level of investment and consumption of the global North can never be the cause of misery. It is much easier to blame the Chinese or even overpopulation. A new fetishism is already visible, one that does not recognize the crisis of societal relationships with nature as such, but declares a part of society as part of the realm of nature. In the age of peaks racism and sexism might overtake anti-Semitism as the classic crisis ideology in the capitalist metropoles.

4. Socio-ecological Condensations

Despite the fact that climate change and peak oil are just two sides of the same mode of consumption and production, those two debates are, for the most part, strictly separated. When they do converge, a rationing discourse emerges. The cap-and-share approach of FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability), for instance, aims at regulation that grants all individuals, without any conditions, the same portion of emission rights (with a declining rate each year). The Irish government is already interested in this approach. David Fleming’s concept of Tradable Energy Quotas has been discussed by British politicians.

FEASTA proposes an egalitarian solution to the problem of energy shortages and the reduction of greenhouse emissions that amounts to a de facto socialization of businesses‘ fossil resource inputs. In contrast to FEASTA, David Fleming plans to endow the state apparatus, as well as private business, with a total of 60% of fossil rations and emission rights a priori – a portion that the state and business would, however, have to purchase by auction. Approaches like Richard Heinberg’s Oil Depletion Protocol explicitly propose to ignore issues of social domination in the face of the crisis. The social and ecological questions congeal in the form of a new terrain of social struggles, comprising options for emancipation as well as many traps.

The age of peaks is changing the material-ecological conditions fundamentally, irreversibly and without precedent. The left, which has grown up with fossil resources, must adapt to these conditions as quickly as possible. This must also lead to a reconsideration of perspectives, strategies, and models of emancipation. Do „progress“ or „liberation“ from a supposed „realm of necessities“ still make sense?

It is doubtful. As a left perspective in the age of peaks, reduction is on the agenda instead of growth. Infrastructures and social relations, which expanded during the 20th Century based on continuously expanding fossil resources, are literally made of desert sand. It is time to get rid of this dead weight.

What will sound unreasonably demanding to many is, to the contrary, a historical opportunity. Not only does it force us to do „what we always wanted to do, “ i. e. live better instead of producing more, work less and drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption; but it also creates a real and very rare possibility: The structures of social domination must fundamentally reorganize themselves, and so become vulnerable. From there, they can continue in a new social form with a stationary „economy“ on a renewable basis, or we can abolish them altogether.