This piece by Zak Brown was originally published at Anti-Imperialism.org
The recent BP oil spill into Lake Michigan has spurred some thoughts on the issue of money within our contemporary social order. Precisely so because of how this event has seemed to stir popular intrigue into the social relationships within capitalism and its relation to our natural conditions.
On a small anecdote, as far back as I can remember I have loved the beach and in specific Lake Michigan. My mother would take my brother and I there almost every other day during the hot Michigan summers to enjoy the cooling shores. Nothing but the Great Lakes possess such awesome and natural beauty. Even as an adult I find myself constantly returning to this wonder as a place to simply relax and put life into perspective. I truly love Lake Michigan.
So when I discovered this recent oil spill had occurred I was as outraged as any other who enjoys this magnificent body of water. However, this lead me to reflect upon the relationship held within capitalism we can extrapolate from this incidence which some corporate mouthpieces will no doubt refer to as “negligible”.
We have this tendency to understand such calamities as outside of the norm or what Zizek calls this ‘subjective violence’ meaning that which comes above the surface of what we consider to be ‘objective’ and normal. This understanding is thoroughly clouded if we can actually understand the logic which drives the circulation of capital and most importantly the embodiment of capital social relations in events such as this. Instead, we should note the very social parameter set by the accumulation of capital which primes us to the ideological acceptance of such environmental degradation as being ‘business as usual’.
Let’s be clear, all wealth originates from nature. There is a common misconception among some Marxists and labor activists who would claim ‘labor creates all wealth’ without understanding the intensely intimate relationship between labor and the object of such labor. Labor transforms these objects of nature into value; into wealth. Therefore it might be asserted that without any such object by which labor can transform the whole entirety of class society, and humanity as we understand it, would be ruined. In this sense, the preservation or at least necessary survival of nature is a precondition to all modes of production. However, as we understand, the motion of capital advances contradictions within its own circuit which threaten the long-term survival of the mode. Marx with his abstract model of capitalism in Capital highlights such contradictions including those primary limits to capital accumulation such as overaccumulation which we identify as material contradictions within the circuit of capital. These are not the only contradictions within the circulation of capital nor should we restrict ourselves to understanding only these social contradictions in a given configuration. Rather, we should also present such contradictions between accumulation and the natural realm as being fundamentally intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production.
It is true that the functional march of history has meant a ‘liberation from nature’ and in fact this is the primary reasoning behind the development of the productive forces. Taken out of the internal logic specific to capital accumulation we see that the productive forces were first utilized by humanity to free themselves from the bondage of nature. And this is generally a very good thing. Nature is a cruel and unforgiving beautiful realm. One in which we as a species have struggled for millenia. We should recognize that only by liberating ourselves from the confines of the natural realm might we achieve a more advanced material condition, quite objectively. In this sense, we should not ever confuse a recognition of potentially catastrophic environmental depletion with an attitude fixated against the development of productive forces to advance the material comfort and relative conditions of humanity. Certainly, we should understand this relationship dialectically.
Regardless we must conceive of our natural environment in the same way which capital does to fully understand the totality of social interaction regarding the natural realm; principally, the natural world is then disposable. And we should draw demarcation here as well. As in, certainly some objects of the natural realm must be deemed as ‘disposable’ in the sense they bear no ontological existence outside of their relative utility to the human subject. In this way, the whole sum of nature is then possibly ‘disposed’ to the will of humanity and our imposition upon it. This is still abstracted from the concrete understanding taken center in the circulation of capital. Wherein the anarchy of production presents a real antagonism between the private accumulation of capital and the longevity of any given ecosystem. Certainly, we might consider capitalism abstractly united in the pursuit of an increasing rate of profit, the repression of revolutionary elements, the reproduction of itself and so on yet we must also articulate there is no concrete or conscious ‘plan’ taken forth. Even the concentration of competitive capital into monopoly capital has not resolved this basic contradiction between established competitors and the natural realm in which they function. The terrible pursuit of an ever expanding profit has rendered any rational (in this sense, planned in accordance to sustainability) contemplation of the environment impossible; it cannot be anything more than a ‘necessary evil’ by the monopolists or in the case of the emergent “organic” industries, a careful investment.
And we see the attempted resolution of this contradiction within the realm of bourgeois order as well. Wherein the necessary superstructural elements of the bourgeoisie are constantly attempting to ‘reign in’ this reckless behavior on behalf of the capitalist agents with all manner of regulation and conservation acts; like the superego desperately trying to limit the destructive id. However, these attempts can only mitigate the antagonism at hand and offer no real resolution to the contradiction in motion (as we continue to see today). In fact, some more belligerent elements of capital have taken disregard to mediation by the superstructure and in fact lend great animosity against it (think the recent campaigns against the Environmental Protection Agency).
The idea we must transcend capitalism to resolve this contradiction between our monolithic selves and our natural environment is certainly not novel nor should we intend to beat a dead horse further on this issue.
Rather the question for us today is how might we conceive of this relationship ‘to nature’ as an organic component of our social relations as a whole? What relations, in specific, can we consider as giving shape to this contradiction?
Simply put, the same relations which govern all interactions among people in capitalism also govern our relationship with the natural realm and all that follows with it. Capitalist social relations extrapolated largely from a single social relation; money.
Money is certainly the Alpha and Omega of capitalism, the beginning and the end. Quite literally so, as we shall highlight. The circuit of capital, being the primary model by which we understand the motion of capital and so the engine of our class society, begins and ends with money. To very quickly outline this circuit: money is invested in a labor process through which commodities are produced, which are then sold for a greater sum of money than initially invested. This process, very crudely summed up, can be abbreviated as Money-Commodity-Money (prime) or M-C-M’. This is the basic circuit of capital and the building block of the entire capitalist mode of production. Embodied in it we can easily identify the importance money has. And this is one of the primary distinctions between the capitalist mode of production and secondary processes of circulation besides that of capital, within the same mode of production (think of the circulation of commodities, commodity-money-commodity). Therefore, the ultimate “goal” of the capitalist is to transform his initial money into more money, by which it becomes capital. This enigmatic property of capital, in regard to its ‘self-expanding’ nature, has prompted great investigation into the functions of our contemporary social order and principally our economic configuration. However, our principal task here is to discern the importance of money with respect to the contradictions at hand.
So then the question appears, what is money? There is already some fantastic work available on this very subject however we should very simply understand money, in this instance, as being a relationship between ‘things’.
This rudimentary understanding still bestows great significance on our investigation here in illuminating the social relations which govern the contradiction between humans and their environment. Precisely so because of a phenomena Marx referred to as the “fetishism of commodities”, a concept which is far too often ignored in popular discourse regarding social and/or critical theory. He explains this commodity fetishism as being the primary mediation between humans in regard to social relations in capitalism:
“As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands”
So then we must understand money as what it truly is, the commodity by which all other commodities relate. This nature of money is something which extends beyond the abstract ‘measurement’ of a commodity or a ‘tool of exchange’ as we can only observe this quality of money in the context of a market by which commodities are circulated. As Marx illustrates, without such context for relation between commodities, money holds no intrinsic value:
“The commodity that functions as a measure of value, and, either in its own person or by a representative, as the medium of circulation, is money. Gold (or silver) is therefore money. It functions as money, on the one hand, when it has to be present in its own golden person. It is then the money-commodity, neither merely ideal, as in its function of a measure of value, nor capable of being represented, as in its function of circulating medium. On the other hand, it also functions as money, when by virtue of its function, whether that function be performed in person or by representative, it congeals into the sole form of value, the only adequate form of existence of exchange-value, in opposition to use-value, represented by all other commodities.”
To make a quick summation: within capitalism, material relations between people become social relations between things, or what we call the fetishism of commodities. In the same scope, we can understand money as being the be-all end-all of commodities in its abstract potential for qualitative relation to others and quantitative potential in accumulation. This means that money embodies the pure and transcendental abstract social value upon which the whole circuit of capital and structure of capitalism rests. Without money our current social order could not subsist as it does, quite simply (and intuitively so).
How then do we apply this to our understanding of contradiction and the social relations which govern our positionality in the natural realm?
Certainly, we must assert with no hesitation that we as subjects of capital relate to everything in the form of money. We must accept this as being our obvious social condition. We cannot do anything, in the sense of social agency, without a relationship to money. We relate to our occupations through money. We relate to our family and friends through money. We rent our labor-power for money. We attend school through money. We attend school to ascertain a better relationship to money. With few exceptions we relate to our entire social formation through money, quite literally so.
Some may even suggest that this totalizing relationship is liberating and even empowering. In every sense, we should understand how money has transformed social relations dramatically from previous epochs parallel to the development of capitalism. Outside the interpellation of various ideology, social relations are often determined more directly in our concrete relation to capital. This means that no longer is our relationship to land, clan, religion, or caste determinant of our social being. No doubt, this is an advancement in the scope of human progress. However, we should not mistake this transformation as an evaporation of any material mediation nor particularly liberating. Our “freedom” in this bourgeois sense is thus entirely founded upon our relationship to capital mediated by money. Without such a relationship, there is not even bourgeois freedom. Furthermore, we must assess this “freedom” founded in our relation to money as being as illusory as that freedom of the serf; now in a simply more commonly accepted form. As subjects of capital, we are set into motion when we are seized upon by money in the same way ‘the subject’ is set into motion by ideology. To put it simply, the stratifying relationships of class society have only transposed into relationships between commodities (principally, as we should not forget the multiplicity of oppressive social relations). As Rosa Luxemberg noted, one does not recognize her chains unless she first attempts to move. In this way, I invite the reader to go anywhere without money. Do anything without money. Relate, in some significant way, to your social formation without money. It is simply not possible. And in this way money mediates our relationship to everything and everyone.
Specifically, we must note that money mediates not only social relations among people but our concrete relationship to ‘all things’ including our natural earth. There, within the social relation of money, we find the phenomena which mediates our contradiction with nature; setting into motion the apparatuses of industry for the purpose of ‘conquering’ our natural realm. Our productive forces, our great capacity, the whole of our social interactions, and our very social ontology is subjected to the eternal expansion of capital. It then becomes clear why we can never rationally preserve or promote the well-being of our natural realm when the way in which we relate to such is the same relation which governs the exploitation of one by another. The necessity for compounded growth in the reproduction of capitalism poses a very real antagonism to the survival of the earth. All of this may even be considered ‘obvious’ to some extent (certainly in the ‘lower’ consciousness of some advocacy groups), however the more pressing question is how how we go about addressing such?
We can then observe the return of popular slogans such as “People Over Profits” along with many social and environmental advocacy initiatives. I wish not to demean these developments as both exciting and necessary in the scope of building a revolutionary movement. Referring to Mao in On Practice, these initiatives represent the “perceptual knowledge” of our contemporary social order which has not yet achieved ‘full consciousness’ or “rational knowledge” of class society but is definitely ripe for such a transformation. I delve more into detail on this specific epistemology in an earlier piece on practice/knowledge and so on. Without chastising such efforts on behalf of the masses we must ultimately develop these ‘advanced ideas’ into ‘correct practice’ and so on. First we should note that slogans such as “People Over Profits” come very close but are yet insufficient. More correct would be “People Over Money” as the primary social relation in correction is not simply profit, as being the necessary locomotive of capital, but the whole scope of money as an actually existing social relation between subjects.
What do we mean by ‘people over money’?
Well, in a practical sense (and historical, in many instances), the subjugation of money to the rational allocation of resources. Meaning, the usage of money as a form of ‘social accounting’ in the course of a common plan and circulation of use-values. The goal here being that capital as a social relation become the secondary aspect of mediation with the primary being a direct emancipatory social relation of another sort. Eventually, the complete negation of the circuit of capital, including secondary circulations (such as that of commodities) will in turn destroy money and liberate social relations in a concrete way. Enter communism.
If we hope to transform our relationship to our natural world in a way that we do not entirely ruin the earth and ourselves in the process we must smash capitalism along with all oppressive configurations which govern our totality.
Without wandering too far into the ‘theoretical fog’ we might also try to conceive of a communist subject which is then not in contradiction with her environment. Certainly, communism represents the complete emancipation of humanity and therefore the satisfying resolution of all contradictions therein and between. The concept seems far-fetched, that humanity would enter into a socio-historic stage absent of antagonism with nature however such is the limit of our subjectivity. I would also imagine the feudal subject could in no way conceptualize our order today, limited by her respective subjectivity. Yet the contemporary social order is a qualitatively transformed totality in relation to previous epochs of class society. Therefore we should take some refuge in that our inability to conceive of such relations is not unfounded but equally, if not more intelligible, than instances of the past.
Without any regard to subjectivity, theory, and the like we can still conclude the absolute necessity of a great social change. If we wish to take seriously the threat such oil corporations pose to the earth, then we should take seriously the logic which continually drives them to destroying our beautiful home. Our relation to the earth mediated by money will always provide limit to any interaction with such beyond a cold calculation of ‘cost-and-benefit’. Coming to a respect of the earth and perhaps even ‘appreciation’ of the natural realm would require a qualitatively different social relation by which we could interact among each other and with the objects of nature. Can this be accomplished by holding picket signs or electing the next democrat? Certainly not. We must begin to actually transform our social order and in doing so destroy these oppressive apparatuses of the bourgeois world which hold humanity and the earth in constant servitude to the enigma of capital.