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First off, I'm not a Democrat, and secondly, I'm not a "liberal" (whatever that means these days); think of me as a critical theorist, whose opinions attempt to incorporate everyday politics into the wider scope of time and space.  But, before we start bickering, I should be allowed to explain where I'm at, why I'm posting on DailyKos, and where we might come to an agreement.  My understanding of the world is distinctly covered by my reading of an academic thinker whose name is Kees van der Pijl, whose clarity of thought and concise understanding of the current moment in history ought to interest all on this board, though his actual writing is quite academic.

<center>Political Economy and History</center>
Let's start by discussing the idea of capitalist discipline, which controls the processes of capitalism as we live through them every day. This is one of the most important concepts I use when discussing recent history and its effect upon politics and economics.  Now, this phrase, "capitalist discipline," comes from Kees van der Pijl's Transnational Classes and International Relations, where it is defined as follows:

Capital is in constant quest for unpaid labor in its social substratum, and once a major 'deposit' is found and incorporated, it seeks to raise the rate of exploitation in the actual labor process; until at some point the social and natural substratum upon which capital accumulation feeds, which it penetrates and transforms, begins to show signs of exhaustion.  From this sequence we can deduce three terrains upon which capitalist discipline is imposed, and where it can and usually will be resisted.  The first is original accumulation -- the process in which, by imposing the commodity form on social relations including productive relations, capital itself crystallizes as a relatively autonomous social force.  The second is the capitalist production process, the exploitation of living labour power, in which the technical labour process and all that it implies in terms of human autonomy and creativity has to be subordinated to the process of expanding value, the valorization of capital invested.  The third is the process of social reproduction in its entirety, the exploitation of the social and natural substratum, which likewise has to be made subject to the requirements of capital accumulation. (p. 36)

Now, this is pretty arcane stuff.  So let me try to translate it into more everyday English: the capitalist system has, from the get-go, intended to conquer the world, hand in hand with the old imperial projects of the English, the Spanish, the French, and the other European nation-states. With capital, however, the word "conquest" has always meant something different.  With capital, "conquest" means that work is to be alienated, meaning that workers are to be made to work for the profit of a capitalist, and nature is to be commodified, meaning that everything in the world is to be turned, in one way or another, into a product to be bought and sold.  

In the first peak era of imperialism (1870-1914), capitalist "conquest" was accompanied by national conquest; today, imperialism works to turn colonized nation-states into mere conduits for corporate profit, by forcing many of them to adopt SAPs (structural adjustment programs) as a consequence of maintaining IMF/ World Bank loans.

From this framework of capitalist history, van der Pijl isolates three movements of "capitalist discipline": 1) the imposition of capitalist social arrangements upon the world, wherein workers sold their labor individually to employers, or were owned as chattel slaves, 2) the capitalist control of the work process, first pioneered as "scientific management" by Frederick Winslow Taylor -- not only were workers selling their labor, but the labor process itself was controlled by the employers, and 3) the creation of a class of workers/ consumers who were trained by education and influenced by advertising in order to be fully integrated into the capitalist economy.  

The ultimate expression of this process #3, as I see it, is the idea of the curriculum vitae -- the word meaning "the course of one's life" in Latin, where in our society the course of one's life is to be used as a piece of advertising for one's labor.  At any rate, this is what capitalist discipline is, an enclosure of the world so that its characteristics can be defined as "natural resources," and its people as wage laborers and high-intensity consumers.

Following the model set by Herman Daly, I imagine that the world, our Planet Earth, can only deal with so much "capitalist discipline" before it becomes a "full world," as follows:


At some point, then, what Daly called "manmade capital" will so completely absorb "natural capital" that the natural basis for the capitalist system will undergo a series of ever-more-severe crises.

At some point in the future, we must, then, look for some other form of discipline to replace "capitalist discipline," before "capitalist discipline" becomes a total ecological calamity.  I would call this other form of discipline ecological discipline, for it will have to create an ecologically sustainable, global society.  This will be the real point of both economics and politics -- the election of leaders will still matter, but what will really matter will be the creation of ecologically sustainable systems in all fields of endeavor.  

Joel Kovel, following Enrique Leff, calls this idea "ecological production," which, essentially, means that instead of producing commodities, we will be producing ecologies, and that any human metabolism within the ecological systems we produce will not destroy the ecological substrate of production.  Teresa Brennan expresses this in a "prime directive": "we shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished" (2003: 164).  

I do not think capitalist discipline and ecological discipline will be compatible.  Capitalist discipline is dependent upon the idea and ideal of "growth," wherein a growing economy, implying an ever-increasing appropriation of "goods and services" in the service of profit, is imbricated in the borrowing of money at interest, the idea of business success, the idea of investment equity, and so on.

<center> American history: the history of capitalism in a nutshell</center>

Kees van der Pijl, for his part, imagines the history of capitalism to be divided up into four stages, corresponding (in my thinking) to four distinct periods of American history:

  1. a period of agricultural capitalism or "extensive accumulation" (p. 63, same book), epitomized most directly by the Deep South before the Civil War, where "cotton was king" and a plantation aristocracy ruled the roost.  
  1. a period of industrial capitalism or "intensive accumulation," epitomized by the era of the Robber Barons as described by Matthew Josephson in his book of that name.  The ascendant industries of that era were "metals, oil, and engineering" (van der Pijl, p. 56).  This period can be said to take off sometime after 1859, when the first profitable American oil well was created in Pennsylvania.
  1. a period of consumer capitalism, when, after the trauma of the Great Depression, the capitalist class found itself obliged to create a consumer class, also known as the "American middle class."  This period reached its heyday in the thirty or so years after World War II.  The ascendant industries of this era were "automobile, chemical, and electrical engineering" industries (56).
  1. a period of neoliberalism, or what we might call the "Age of Finance Capital."  This is the period, vaguely, from the end of the 1970s to the present day.  The ascendant industries of this period can be said to be "microelectronics/ telecom and biotechnology/ pharmaceutical" (57).  In this period, capitalist discipline can be said to have invaded the genetic code of the natural organisms themselves; thus with genetic engineering, life itself has become a patented, malleable commodity.  This period of capitalism is characterized by an increasing glut of capital, a global economy based on dollar hegemony (where "world trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy") and an increasing tendency to crisis, which has three dimensions:

a) Ecological crisis, which can be seen most directly in global warming but is there in other ways as well,

b) Financial crisis, seen in the increasing instability of dollar hegemony,

and c) Political crisis, seen in the increasing instability of US attempts at world domination and the various revolts against neoliberalism (mostly evident in Europe and South America).

Unlike with the Great Depression, the capitalist system will not be able to "grow its way out" of the crises now facing it.  This is not to say that it is not trying to do so.  The impending era of oil crisis, for instance, is being met by appeals to "alternative energy."  However, most of these appeals fall in complete ignorance of the problem of "energy return on energy investment," wherein an energy is only reasonably cheap if if does not require too much energy to extract.  The problem of impending oil crisis, then, is a problem of how expensive energy is going to get when the oil starts to run out, as oil will probably be, by far, the cheapest form of energy known to our civilization.  This is only a real problem for a society addicted to the burning of 85 million barrels of oil every day; i.e. our present-day capitalist society.  

This same real problem infects the reasoning with global warming: the Kyoto Protocol, which many Democrats have been trying to support in the US, is merely an insufficient-in-itself "first step," adopted without adequate thinking-through of its consequences for capitalist profit.

Petty ecological measures such as environmental preservation, recycling, toxic waste cleanup, etc. serve to mitigate the effects of the profit machine while allowing said machine to continue operation.  Although all of these measures are good things in themselves, alone they constitute a losing battle against capitalism's need to dominate and reshape the world into a set of commodities.  Real ecology will need to incorporate philosophies such as permaculture or agroecology -- and not just to agricultural production but to all productive activities.

<center>Politics In This Era</center>

For Kees van der Pijl, politics during the capitalist era has been dominated by two types of political formations: 1) the "Lockean heartland," the core country or countries of the capitalist system, characterized by an elite of rich capitalists, a limited modicum of "human rights," and an imperial drive to conquer the planet and subject it to capitalist discipline, and 2) the various "Hobbesian" contender states, which sporadically adopt authoritarian regimes in order to "catch up" economically with the "Lockean heartland" while resisting incorporation into said heartland as colonies.  The initial "Lockean heartland" was the United Kingdom, followed after World War II by the United States; the most spectacular contender states (eg Napoleonic France, Germany of the Kaiser, Nazi Germany, Tojo's Japan) would engage the "Lockean heartland" in open combat, which they always lost.  The last serious contender state was the Soviet Union.

One of the ways in which we can tell that the global capacity for capitalist discipline is peaking, is the way in which this system, of competition between "Lockean heartland" and contender states, is falling apart.  The United States, the world's official self-appointed "Lockean heartland," alienates the other powers in the world, which create contrary power-bases; it endangers its own economy by printing too many dollars; and it adopts "Hobbesian" authoritarian political measures under the aegis of a largely self-inflicted "War on Terror."

This collapse of the "Lockean heartland," in sum, constitutes the main political problem of this era.  We will, at some point, have to construct a new political order to deal with this collapse, one not based on the prior assumption of the leadership of national actors in competition for global conquest.

<center>Where We Might Agree</center>

Now, I'm not a big fan of mainstream politics, given the tendency of its participants to "sell out" to economic interests.  Kees van der Pijl, once again, discusses how this works not just in the United States, but in the world at large, in an article which one can read here.  My sympathies, like his, are with the anti-corporate-globalization protesters.  However, I do think that we share political points in common, and common ground.  A depiction of this common ground might be as follows:

The current "war on the world" being waged by the Cheney/ Bush administration serves as a dramatic "red herring" -- the real problems of the world are based in the fact that capitalist discipline will at some point, in the next few decades, be coming to an end.  We can agree to oppose the "war on the world," and to advocate the search for rational alternatives.

We can certainly agree on opposition to the Bush administration's agenda for education -- the No Child Left Behind Act and other high-stakes standardized testing nostrums.  Education must be oriented toward a real future, and not parodied with high-stakes tests whose main effect is to straightjacket public education as "test prep" while leaving students lamentably unprepared for the volatile future we can predict for them.

We can attempt to get American society to recognize the seriousness of the ecological crisis facing it.

We can sympathize with the attempts of the average American individual to make ends meet in an increasingly volatile economy.

In short, I'm not here to bicker with liberal Democrats, or any other type of Democrats for that matter.  I do, on the other hand, want to kick the analysis offered on this board up a notch, and I hope this diary-post succeeds to some extent in doing that.

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 06:26 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A few thoughts on this (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    badger, Urizen, besieged by bush, DBunn

    Welcome.  What you're trying to do is important, but not easy.  I think you need to back up a bit, and present the chunks of your argument step-by-step, rather than giving us both barrels right from the start.  It would also help if you tied the van der Pijl type of analysis more directly to some practical choices or actions that people might take.  For instance, you seem to think that there is some sort of direct relationship between these ways of thinking about the organization of the world economy and the kinds of political actions that people take or ought to take right here and right now.  How does that work?

    I think you worry more about the fact that you're not a self-described Democrat or liberal more than most people on this site would.  I also think it's a trifle presumptuous to claim that you're going to improve the quality of the analysis here -- i.e.  "kick it up a notch."  Many of us have been involved (and often continue to be involved) in protests, demonstrations, etc.  And some of us have already been exposed to the general ideas that you present. (To me it sounds like a blend of Rosa Luxembourg, Michel Kalecki, a dash of Murray Bookchin, maybe a sprinkling of "radical ecology" stuff.)  I agree that Herman Daly is a really important figure, and that integrating his insights into a  vision of a different path for the development of economic relations is a promising way to think about some of the connections that you seem to be interested in making.  But I confess that my eyes begin to glaze at the thought of having to translate a lot of social scientific lingo into practical terms.      

    •  A reply to tarheelian (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DaleA, Urizen, lemming22

      Thanks for reading this diary-post; I appreciate your audience.

      As for the "I think you worry more about the fact that you're not a self-described Democrat or liberal more than most people on this site would" stuff: I was going to include a section on that, but I really just wanted to get this thing out, even if it ended up looking like an intermediate draft.  I see the liberal attempt to "take over the Democratic Party" as based largely on illusion.  In the neoliberal era, the liberal Democrats follow a trajectory from McGovern's capture of the nomination to Kucinich's 2% showing in 2004.  Perhaps this will change, this year or in 2008 or thereafter, as the neoliberal order devours itself; perhaps not.  We might start by taking to heart this idea that supporting candidates that "sell out" (eg John Kerry) might not be a particularly good use of our energies.

      As for the "kick the analysis offered on this board up a notch" -- is anyone else here trying to discuss critical theory, or neo-Gramscian international political economy, or anything of that sort?  I'd appreciate it if you could provide me with a link or two, so I could participate in their diaries too.  The more the merrier!

      As for practical choices, I'd recommend explorations into sustainable agriculture, guerrilla gardening, community gardens, and so on.  Various other forms of local, small-scale sharing would bring meaning to our lives, too.  We should be defenders of the right to live off of the land, anywhere in the world.

      Reduce, reuse, recycle

      by Cassiodorus on Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 07:47:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Practice (0+ / 0-)

        Sustainable agriculture is definitely one place we've already started.  The growth in farmers markets over the last thirty years is one prime example.  I have proposed that we use that existing audience and economic infrastructure to begin introducing solar concepts to the general public, see for further information.

        Late stage capitalism is all about addiction and corporate feudalism.  The market economy definitely needs restructuring and an ecological reality check.  Some of the changes are minimal and still can have maximum effect.  What we need is the imagination to envision a different way and the perseverance to enact it.  

        I would find a structural and anarchist discussion of these issues to be most helpful, especially if we add Kropotkin, the syndicalists, and the Mondragon example into the mix.

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

        by gmoke on Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 09:23:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  This is a good start (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Urizen, DBunn

    I can definitely agree that the imminent collapse of the American (and Western world) capitalist-consumer-convenience society is one of the most important, and least talked about, problems we face.  Unless we prepare for life after cheap oil, most of us are facing a serious upheaval in our lives.

    Yet, we hear very little from our alleged representatives and nothing from the corporate media about peak oil, global warming, lack of fresh water, declining agricultural production, pollution,overpopulation, etc.

    I can certainly get behind "rational alternatives" to the GWOT, the short sighted pro-oil energy policies, the stupid NCLB (and in TX the TAKS) tests.  A grass roots outcry for better education, environmental policy , and government in general should, IMHO, be an integral part of our discussion.  

    To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men ~Abraham Lincoln

    by zoot mony on Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 07:09:33 PM PST

  •  Hi there! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DaleA, Urizen

    This diary is clearly based on a lot of reading and serious thought, and deserves some kind of response. For now, that would be me.

    I agree with your basic premise, which I would state as "the era of capitalism is nearly over, because its continuation is ecologically impossible". Our task is to prepare the way for what can follow, and to minimize the pain and destruction of the transition.

    I think about the problem this way-- if we find ourselves way up high on a rickety ladder, first take a step down. Then another, etc, and maybe if luck is with us we'll make it down to a point where a fall won't hurt too much. Then get our feet on solid ground, and consider what to do next.

    Things like this:

    Petty ecological measures such as environmental preservation, recycling, toxic waste cleanup, etc. serve to mitigate the effects...

    are in the category of taking a step down the ladder. They sure don't fix the problem, but at least they're heading in the right direction, and perhaps prepare people to take the next step too.

    In closing, thanks for writing this:

    Unlike with the Great Depression, the capitalist system will not be able to "grow its way out" of the crises now facing it.

    If there is one thing that I would like the good liberals on this site to understand, it would be that simple (if sobering) truth.

  •  very good and welcome (0+ / 0-)

    I agree with you that we need to subject capitalism to a more rigorous critique.  

    Too much of we concentrate on never comes close to addressing the structural causes of the problems we face.

    I concur with what the posters above me wrote.  I do think small chunks might serve better.  In addition to making the information more managable, it would also increase the time of exposure to the ideas.  The more often these are presented, the sooner a grasp of them will develop.

    Part of our problem is getting what seem to be complex and abstract ideas into forms that can been readily communicated to the general public.  That is what politics is.  We need to develop plain spoken versions of ideas that now seem only to be expressed in academic terminology.  The more often we discuss these things the easier it will be to develop a common language around them, one in which we can spend less time defining terms and explaining ourselves and more directly adressing what we can do.

    There are many of us engaged in what is basically the same critique, but we are all marginal in a demographic sense and we come from many different disciplines, each with it's own terms and platforms of discourse.    

    So, I hope you write here often and that we can generate an effective language among us that is able to implant the idea of questioning the perceived inevitability of capitalism in the broader discourse of politics.  I believe if you do continue to write and post here, you will succeed to some degree in kicking the analysis up a notch.  You will probably have to be very patient, the attention span here is short and unrecommended diaries don't last very long.

    Thank you for writing.  To me, theory (as opposed to pie fights) is a breath of very fresh air.  I think it's extremely important.  At this point in our history we are on a sinking ship (capitalism) and we're going to have to build our own lifeboat if we are going to survive.

    I'm tired and I don't have much to offer besides that.  I'm not familiar with Kees van der Pijl, but I'll look into him.  

    I'm not a basic liberal either, more of a redneck anarchist who reads Deleuze and Foucault.  

    Again, thank you.  Please keep posting.

  •  Thank you, very interesting (0+ / 0-)

    Could you perhaps tell us more about Kees van der Pijl, who he is and where he trained? His ideas sound vaguely Marxist, but not really. His analysis is also somewhat familiar but I can't quite place it.

    Thanks for posting this excellent diary.

  •  Some thoughts (0+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the capsule. I have not read Kees van der Pijl, but he sounds like an extension of Marx/Engels historical materialism. You don't give us enough of his work to tell if he offers thoughts on solutions or alternative structures.

    In my own reading, I always found that Marx and Engels correctly identified the historical processes and correctly recognized the nature of unbridled capitalism. The failures came in attempts to construct alternative social relations to markets.

    IMHO (and it has to be humble if I never even heard of van der Pijl) the problem is that the "Smithian" "invisible hand" has always had the virtue of invisibility. One can comfortably relax and let "natural" "market forces" regulate the social economy.

    The basic problem is that such a system tends towards concentration and expansion. It has to expand everywhere and it must constantly grow to survive.

    The problem is that there are limits to growth that have nothing to do with markets and capital expansion. There is a fundamental inelasticity in nature that the magic  "money is fungible" doesn't, as it were, take into account.

    So here I sit, with ample evidence that regulated market capitalism can improve the lot of a great many, can empower global civilzations, can maximize resource utilization (and therein lies the future problem), and can accelerate us towards one of many possible brick walls.

    Thank you for bringing this academic to my attention. I'll add to my reading list.

    You know, as an aside, the more I learn, the more I realize that I will never be able to know enough.

    •  Reply to evilpenguin (0+ / 0-)

      "Thanks for the capsule. I have not read Kees van der Pijl, but he sounds like an extension of Marx/Engels historical materialism. You don't give us enough of his work to tell if he offers thoughts on solutions or alternative structures."

      He doesn't.  "Ecological discipline" is my thought, & it probably means the same thing as what Joel Kovel means when he mentions "ecological production."

      Reduce, reuse, recycle

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 11:33:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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