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Writing toward the end of World War II, the economic historian Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation ( 1957) showed that the “idea of the self-regulating market” for a century and a half had generated a recurrent tension between the notion of free trade and the problems of transforming people, land, and money into commodities. If society did not protect itself from its logic, he argued, the market would inexorably increase economic inequalities, environmental degradation, and financial instability. In Polanyi’s view, the rampant nationalism of the two world wars, and the intervening economic crisis, were reactions to the nineteenth-century expansion of world trade.
To reconceptualize the relation between “power” in the sense of sociopolitical organization and “power” in the sense of energy technologies, we need to unravel the continuities and discontinuities between our concepts of “energy” and “agency.” A delineation of the significance of “agency” is discussed in Chapter 10, where it is observed that so-called posthumanists misleadingly tend to attribute agency to any kind of force, regardless of whether it is propelled by a purpose of some kind. Paradoxically, my critique of the mainstream approach to energy technologies is that it tends to disregard the human agencies underlying their capacity to redistribute workloads and environmental burdens in world society. At first glance, these two objections may seem contradictory, but they are not. In the first case, I disavow the attribution of agency to nonliving forces, while in the latter, I propose that we identify the human agency involved in organizing the unequal access to nonhuman energy. Both arguments challenge conceptual fallacies – either blurring the distinction between the living and the nonliving, or treating technological systems as artifacts purified of human agency – that epitomize the phenomenon of fetishism. In both cases, society is made invisible. In the former case, decontextualized entities are represented as equivalent sources of agency, and the distinction between social and natural is dissolved. In the latter case, the category of “energy” reveals itself to be a politically neutral way of talking about social machinations. Bodily work – muscular energy – is always propelled by agency. When nonmuscular energy is harnessed to substitute for bodily work, there may be sociopolitical agencies at work that are less apparent.
This book is ultimately an argument for degrowth. However, it differs from other critiques of economic growth and capitalism in not approaching the imperative of growth as an idea or policy that we might argue about, as if better ideas and policies could be implemented on the basis of empirical evidence, reason, morality, democratic decision making, or political activism. All these avenues have been tried in innumerable debates and political experiments throughout the world – but all have finally proven futile. Everywhere politics have succumbed to the logic of the market. Democratic political systems have been unable to curb the logic of globalized capitalism. Democracy sees to it that any politician sincere enough to seriously advocate degrowth will not have a future in politics. The ecologically suicidal trajectory of global society is not the result of misguided policies, corrupt politics, or human nature, but of the imperatives inscribed in the artifact of general purpose money – the idea that everything can be converted into anything else.1 Without redesigning money, all our insights and aspirations for a better world will come to nothing. This is tantamount to proposing that we need to transform our very conception of politics by recognizing the power of artifacts to organize social life and, concomitantly, that to change society we need to redesign our artifacts.
In the previous two chapters I have critically discussed so-called posthumanist approaches in social science, and I have mentioned that much contemporary anthropology is committed to an outlook frequently referred to as the ontological turn. In a nutshell, most proponents of this outlook would argue that different groups of people may literally live in different worlds. In their view, there is no single natural reality to which our various perspectives refer, but as many realities as there are perspectives. They would argue that to posit a scientific approach to reality as more valid and reliable than traditional, nonmodern ontologies such as animism is tantamount to adopting a condescending, top-down relation affiliated with European colonialism. While such condescension and outright contempt for non-European worldviews have been abundantly illustrated in the history of scientific thought, the indiscriminate rejection of Enlightenment concepts of reason and truth cannot be an appropriate response. However, my approach to the far-reaching social consequences of artifacts such as money and technology suggests a concession that there are aspects of an object-oriented posthumanist ontology that deserve to be integrated into social theory. It is because of this conundrum that I devote so much space to the deliberations of posthumanists on the role of nonhuman objects in social life. As we have seen, there are indeed fundamental aspects of a “modern” outlook that implicate colonialism and should be rejected, but paradoxically, the identification of such points of symbiosis between Enlightenment science and colonialism is best accomplished precisely by applying Enlightenment concepts of reason and truth. While I share the anticolonial aspirations of so-called political ontology (Blaser 2013), I do not think that radical ontological relativism will help to expose the power structures and asymmetric resource flows that continue to underpin neocolonialism today.
In the previous chapter we returned to the observation, in Chapter 2, that posthumanist researchers in the social sciences have been inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater: their dismay regarding what human society is doing to the rest of the biosphere has led them to reject some fundamental premises of modern science such as the analytical distinctions between the social and the natural, subjective and objective, and semiotic and material aspects of phenomena. In this chapter and the next, I will exemplify how concerns about our deteriorating biosphere can prompt well-intentioned and critical minds to abandon serious analysis of our circumstances. Although I sympathize with their ambition to reject mainstream modern ontology, my objection is that the ontological transformations that we need to undergo should not be tantamount to dismissing science and rigorous analysis. If my tone in this chapter is agitated, it is because I am as dismayed by the ongoing destruction of our planet as Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Bruno Latour, but strongly feel that academics terrified by the predicament of the Anthropocene have a responsibility that goes beyond publishing the hazy and elusive deliberations that are currently referred to as “posthumanism.” I am agitated not only because we are destroying the planet but also because legions of critical academics are devoting their intellectual energies to everything but contributing to an analytically rigorous grasp of our dilemma. Such a synthesis must necessarily be interdisciplinary. It can only benefit from indignation, but it must not abandon ideals of clarity and analytical rigor.
I have recently been involved in debates with posthumanists about how to challenge the economic, political, and ecological absurdities of our contemporary world. It is easy for most of us to agree that the current trajectory of global society is a source of frustration, to say the least, and I don’t think I need to refer to statistics on rising inequality or the transgression of “planetary boundaries” to amplify that feeling. A significant number of anthropologists and other social scientists today seem to want to turn their backs on modernity. For many anthropologists, this is an ontological turn. It means identifying with the nonmodern worldviews of the people who have hosted them during fieldwork. Some problems with this approach are discussed in Chapters 10, 11, and 12 of this book.
To most people, money is like water is to fish – and yet it is a most peculiar invention. In this and the following chapter, I will elaborate my argument that its intrinsic logic is nothing less than capitalism. Marx seems to have been profoundly aware of this,1 which raises the question of why neither he nor most of his followers made the very artifact of money the primary target for reform.2 Although Marx and a minority of Marxists envisaged postcapitalist society as necessarily moneyless, such visions have universally been dismissed by practical politicians as utopian (Nelson 2001a). In contrast to so-called utopian socialists like Robert Owen, political regimes inspired by Marxist theory have generally not contemplated radically transforming the role of money.3 Yet money in its present form inexorably generates not only increasing global inequalities but also an appalling degradation of the biosphere. The basic conundrum of money is that it is simultaneously an idea, or sign (a unit of account), and a potent material force. Money is represented as a reflection of some underlying and more material level of reality to which it refers, yet it organizes that material reality. This duality explains Marx’s contradictory approach to money, as evident in his critique of utopian socialists like the Owenites, whose ambition to abolish money he dismissed as “useless and idealistic” (Nelson 2001b: 46). Rather than seeing money as the source and essence of capitalist property relations, Marx argued that money could only be dethroned by first transforming the social relations of production.
In this chapter, I will draw in greater detail on Karl Polanyi’s ( 1957) analysis of the structural causes of human suffering that are immanent in the nineteenth-century idea of a free and self-regulating market, particularly for commoditized labor, and on David Graeber’s (2011) inquiry into the 5,000-year history of such commoditization. I shall again trace the structural repression that they illuminate to the logic of general purpose money, viewed as a specific human artifact attributed with a particular social and ecological inertia. Such inertia of artifacts has been experienced by any player of a board game, and it is no coincidence that the discipline of economics has found extensive use for game theory.1 The use of specific artifacts throughout human networks generates algorithmic regularities in social behavior that can be mathematically simulated. The current author makes no pretense to proficiency in such methods, but at a general level, I propose that the trajectories of human societies reflect the design of the artifacts that regulate their exchange relations, and that policies for transforming society thus cannot avoid considering how such artifacts are designed.
The insight that human activity has been transforming the metabolism of the biosphere to such an extent that it threatens the future existence of our species has provoked several kinds of reactions among different people. In the two decades since the notion of the Anthropocene was introduced, at the start of this millennium (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000), it has generated a great number of books and articles discussing its various implications. Some writers have traced the history of debates regarding the naming and dating of this new geological age, referring to the research results of the Earth System sciences. Some have predicted the global environmental changes it is likely to imply over the coming decades and centuries, given different possible scenarios with regard to human economy, technology, and demography. Many have tried to identify the root causes of anthropogenic environmental degradation, offered political proposals for mitigating it, and deliberated on why such proposals are not being adopted. Others have suggested ways in which the concept of the Anthropocene should be changing mainstream understandings of the relation between nature and society, and of what it means to be human. Whether approaching the topic from the perspectives of natural science, social science, or the humanities, a great number of people concerned about our future have increasingly found their thinking framed in terms of the far-reaching implications of the Anthropocene.
A central theoretical challenge that has haunted me ever since the 1970s is how to articulate and pursue the conviction that our most tangible manifestation of capital accumulation – modern technology – is to be understood as a global phenomenon (Hornborg 1992, 2001). Many people would immediately agree that such an observation is historically valid, but my ambition has been to give it a more literal significance than reflected in conventional acknowledgments that the emergence of industrial technology was conditioned by global processes (e.g., Wolf 1982; Marks  2015). My reason for devoting this chapter to the ontology of technology is my conviction that mainstream modern perceptions of what technologies basically are derive from the distorted understanding of technological progress that emerged from the historical experience of nineteenth-century Britons in the core of their colonial empire. The ontological shift required to grasp the scope of this distortion demands the readiness to deconstruct familiar categories that is the hallmark of the “ontological turn” in anthropology, but paradoxically also the kind of analytical reason that is associated with the very Enlightenment that the ontological turn repudiates. As I shall show in the following chapters, the illusions of machine fetishism continue to constrain our deliberations on the potential of our species to avert environmental disaster, for instance by shifting to renewable energy (Chapter 7) or to a socialist economy in which technologies are meant to serve the interests of justice and sustainability (Chapters 8 and 9). My intention, in advocating a fundamentally revised ontology of technology, is to expose the hegemonic illusions of machine fetishism.
In this chapter I will elaborate the critique, introduced in the previous chapter, of some conceptual flaws in eco-Marxist theory. I argue for an extended application of Karl Marx’s insight that the apparent reciprocity of free market exchange is to be understood as an ideology that obscures material processes of exploitation and accumulation. Rather than to confine this insight to the worker’s sale of his or her labor power for wages and basing it on the conviction that labor power is uniquely capable of generating more value than its price, it is evident that capital accumulation also relies on asymmetric transfers of several other biophysical resources such as embodied non-human energy, land, and materials. The notions of price and value serve to obscure the material history and substance of traded commodities. This shift of perspective extends Marx’s foundational critique of mainstream economics by focusing on the unacknowledged role of ecologically unequal exchange but requires a critical rethinking of the concept of “use-value.” It also requires a fundamental reconceptualization of the ontology of technological progress, frequently celebrated in Marxist theory.
In this concluding chapter, I address the implications of my argument throughout this book that many destructive aspects of the contemporary global economy are consequences of the use of general purpose money to organize social and human-environmental relations, and that the political ideals of sustainability, justice, and resilience will only be feasible if money is redesigned. The argument is based on the conviction that human artifacts such as money play a crucial role in organizing society, and that closer attention should be paid to the design and logic of such artifacts, rather than devoting disproportionate intellectual energy to theorizing and meticulously tracing their complex repercussions in terms of patterns of human behavior, as if those patterns were amenable to regulation without redesigning the artifacts that generate them. What is generally referred to as capitalism, I maintain, is the aggregate logic of human decisions about the management of money. Visions of a postcapitalist society using conventional money is thus a contradiction in terms. The chapter sketches a possible redesign of money based on the idea that each country establishes a complementary currency for local use only, which is distributed to all its residents as a basic income. The distinction between two separate spheres of exchange would insulate local sustainability and resilience from the deleterious effects of globalization and financial speculation. To indicate that the suggestion is not as unrealistic as it may seem at first sight, I briefly and provisionally respond to some of the many questions raised by the proposal.
Recognizing the many deleterious repercussions of economic growth, many critics of these tendencies have advocated so-called degrowth (Latouche 2009; D’Alisa et al. 2015; Kallis 2018). Giorgos Kallis (2018: 4–8) shows how Serge Latouche’s concept of degrowth in 1972 represented the convergence of perspectives from several sources including the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the philosophers André Gorz and Ivan Illich, and the economic anthropologists Karl Polanyi, Marcel Mauss, and Marshall Sahlins. The relation between visions of degrowth and Marxism, however, remains ambiguous. Although “capitalism” is frequently identified as the main target of critique, proponents of degrowth rarely clarify how they conceptualize technological progress, unequal exchange, surplus production, or the exploitation of labor and nature.