Sunday, October 21, 2007

early thoughts towards a dissertation of some type

According to USDA statistics, only approximately 2 million Americans are still directly involved in agricultural production, and of those people only 10% of the average farm family’s income comes directly from farming. As the link notes, there are as many architects and engineers as farmers, and nearly twice as many people play World of Warcraft online as farm for a living; there are four times as many people living in New York City alone. As the urban population grows and the rural population shrinks, with more and more people managing wider stretches of increasingly disappearing farmland, capitalism develops a new flashpoint for crisis. Technological advances have allowed for a relatively small number of people to feed hundreds of millions, but these same innovations place increased pressure on what few food-producing areas remain. Rather than merely threatening local populations, the deterritorialization of agriculture means that cyclical variations in weather patterns can now threaten the entire (inter)national population, and disease and insect infestation can wreck far more havoc than ever before. There is a typically Marxist paradox here: technological advances in the last two hundred years have made food production easier and more reliable, which has in turn allowed the population to expand to the very limits of sustainability—such that relatively small disruptions in the food supply can now threaten severe hardship, especially in the Global South.

This same flashpoint, once identified, can be found across late capitalism. Consider for instance the current severe drought in the American southeast, a situation exacerbated by irrational patterns of development and population distribution that did not take into account infrastructure demands; the engineering marvels our advanced technology allows us to accomplish carry with them an increased interconnectivity and interdependency (and thus vulnerability and proclivity to crisis). The mechanized production we depend on requires such massive daily replenishment that temporary local slowdowns are felt across the system; a single hurricane in New Orleans causes gasoline prices to shoot up nationwide (never to come back down) and the failure of a single power station in Ohio causes a blackout across the entire Northeast.

Indeed, advanced social productivity as a whole would seem to hang upon a single loose nail, global oil production, which according to the most recent figures seems likely to have peaked in late 2006. As of yet there is no cheap energy alternative to oil, and the powers-that-be do not seem especially concerned about finding one (we are assured instead that something will be invented at the last minute to save us all). These phantasmagoric technologies of free energy and total automation, always just around the corner, would seem to be based in science-fiction stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and bear little relation to science as we know it today. If anything, we seem actually to be rapidly approaching the absolute physical limits of battery storage and processing power, barriers past which we are unlikely to be able to progress.

Meanwhile, the oil age has grown the population from one billion people in 1800 to seven billion people today, and they will all require food, clothing, and shelter. Without some alternative to oil to drive the mechanized agriculture we now depend on for survival there will be unprecedented, almost unimaginable material suffering across the globe.

It would seem to me, then, that there is ample room now for a reconsideration of Marxism along environmental lines and the creation of a new teleological trajectory for capitalism, one which does not reach its liberatory apotheosis in the separation of production from exploitation but instead self-immolates in the apocalyptic extinguishment of production altogether. Moreso than revolution, the dystopia of de-development we now face strikes me as the real logical consequence of the capitalism, which can never plan ahead, and which can never say “enough.”