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October 20, 2019

A history of violence


October 20, 2019

The American story of goodness and benevolence has always depended on a particular conception of time linked to selective history. The Indian Wars had just concluded, and the American eugenics movement of forced sterilization was just getting started, when Nazism was being conceived in Germany. Far from being driven by ideology, it was the economic success of American industrialization driven by the fruits of slavery and genocide that motivated Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

The conception of a sad and tragic, but necessary, past is used to place this history in a vaguely conceived ‘before.’ However, indigenous women were still being forcibly sterilized in 1976. The US war in Southeast Asia, in which at least four million overwhelmingly innocent human beings were slaughtered, was just ending then. And despite the victories of the Civil Rights movement, the class position of American blacks remained little changed. This marked the start of the era of ‘freedom to’ capitalism – neoliberalism.

Following decades of smaller scale terror, brutality, rape and pillage, George W Bush launched the US War against Iraq that led to the deaths of at least one million Iraqis and lit the wider Middle East on fire. The bloodshed led several million Iraqis to flee their homes both internally, and to neighboring countries, including Syria. The US has been ‘putting out fires’ it started in the region, including supporting a Saudi-led genocide in Yemen, arming a relentless proxy war in Syria and bombing Libya back to the seventeenth century, ever since. Most of the central architects of the Iraq War spent years or decades working in the oil and gas industry.

This can be understood through epochs, in geopolitical terms, as tragedy related to being human and / or as an amalgam particular to American history. Left out would be the economic motivations, the use and abuse of ‘the world’ as a means to ascend an economic pyramid to wealth, prestige and power. This isn’t to suggest that this is all that it is, history reduced to a single motivation. However, religious, political and cultural ‘freedom’ could in theory have been achieved without slavery, genocide and / or anyone getting rich.

By the late nineteenth century, the American forests had been cut to the ground. Resources had been mined. With ‘industrialization’ in full flower, rivers and lakes were used as open toilets for industrial waste. Jim Crow laws were in force, the later stages of ‘Indian removal’ were underway and industrial conglomerates were using their economic power to eliminate competition, consolidate market power and crush labor. ‘Freedom to’ remained the province of the oligarchs, newly minted industrialists and those outside of government reach.

By the 1960s the environmental consequences of American industrialization had reached their temporary limits. Rivers and lakes were catching fire from high concentrations of industrial pollutants. The ravages of strip mining for coal – along with the human toll that coal mining had on miners – was becoming known outside of Appalachia. The air in major cities was toxic and had been made nearly unbreathable by surrounding industries, vehicular traffic and the burning of waste. The federal government responded to unrest from below, with Richard Nixon creating the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970.

The ‘process’ of industrialization has been turned into a formula of sorts by economists. 1) produce industrial inputs and consumers goods (dirty production) for export, 2) use the wages and accumulated capital from doing so to shift to higher value-added production and domestic consumption and when this has been accomplished 3) let ‘newly industrializing’ countries take over dirty production. From London to New York to Beijing, two and one-half centuries of toxic air, undrinkable water and rolling public health crises. But then, the pollution moves on and everyone is rich, right?

Back to the conception of time at work for a moment: the idea of ‘progress’ in the economist’s history is an illusion in the sense that it implies a past, present and future to an idea – that of industrialism, that is totalizing. Capitalism is a mode of social organization. Labor is organized as parts of a whole as gears are to a machine. The reciprocal of capitalist social organization is ever-present within capitalist societies. America is littered with the carcasses of past capitalism. The abandoned factories, gas stations and industrial sites exist in the present as much as they did in the past. ‘Capitalism’ doesn’t see them – and live with them, but we do.

Industrial agriculture is a prime example of the capitalist concept of efficiency applied to break a process into constituent parts and then reconfigure it along industrial lines. Monoculture planting reconfigures the landscape and local ecosystems. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides reconfigure plants, ecosystems and the makeup of the soil. Formerly prime agricultural land is killed, denuded of the very life that made it good for growing crops for millennia.

Liberal economists admit to environmental destruction without granting it primacy. This is by design. Value Theory, the capitalist method of determining what something is worth, is tied to money and power. As the argument goes, something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Two points: in this theory, without a price, there is no value. Second, given the skewed distribution of income and wealth, price means one thing to the rich and another to the poor. And in fact, the relation of price to wealth has its direct corollary in the relation of wealth to political power.

As accumulating environmental crises are in the process of demonstrating, nature exists regardless of whether or not it has a market price assigned to it. And to the extent that wealth can buy temporary respite from the consequences of environmental destruction, the people with the money to adequately price nature, were doing so actually possible, have less motivation than the people who don’t. And this leaves aside the class relations that have environmental destruction as a source of concentrated wealth and power.

Excerpted from: ‘Capitalism and the Violence of Environmental Decline’.


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