The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 6. Capitalism II – Cores and Peripheries

My post last week on livestock seemed to make a slightly larger ripple in cyberspace than my usual offerings. Ah well, it’s an issue that always has legs – unlike the meat alternatives proposed by George Monbiot. The whole kerfuffle about meat in the media last week stemmed from the Food Climate Research Network’s report Grazed and Confused, a title which aptly summarises not only a good deal of the ensuing media debate but also the state of DEFRA officials as they contemplate a post-EU future for British agriculture. Their boss Michael Gove has apparently been talking enthusiastically about ‘sustainable intensification’. Expect a future in which blandishments about ‘eco-friendly’ feedlot beef and ‘sustainable’ electric cars divert us from the truth that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before, which is what actually matters. I’m not sure that the FCRN is keeping its eye on the ball on this one: maybe they should have called their report The Wood for the Trees.

Still, what can I do? Get back to my history of the world, that’s what. But thanks for all the extra comments last time, and apologies for not responding to all of them – non-response is not indicative of ingratitude or lack of interest on my part. Anyway, this week I bring you an entirely non-controversial topic – European colonialism – so nothing much to comment on there, right? I’ll note as usual that a fully referenced version of the excerpt below is available here.


So, back to the main thread of my story: in weighing up capitalism’s historical record, it’s also necessary to reckon with the fact that capitalism has never confined itself to single national economies. Doubtless Stalin did everywhere except Russia a favour when he proclaimed ‘socialism in one country’, but there’s never been ‘capitalism in one country’. In one sense, we can look at this in terms of the kind of ‘ratchet effect’ mentioned earlier. Capitalist states are able to generate and direct more money, and therefore more power, than other ones – than agrarian ones in particular. So states that had sufficient resources and institutional capital to be able to play the same game as the leading capitalist powers (in the early modern world, the Netherlands and England) had an incentive to play catch-up, which they did either by imposing capitalism from above (the aristocratic ‘Prussian path’) or, in places conveniently free of aristocracies, building it from below (the ‘American path’).

The catch-up game is still a very common way of thinking about inequalities in the global economy. For whatever reason, the economies of the early capitalist powers ‘took off’, and all that’s needed now is for the ‘developing’ economies to take off too, and then everyone will be happy (…provided we assume that everyone in the ‘developed’ countries is happy). But another line of argument suggests that the early capitalist powers took off at the direct expense of other parts of the world – an idea pursued influentially in Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘uneven development’, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, and Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory. In their different ways all these theories suggest that ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are two sides of the same coin. The title of one of Frank’s papers – ‘The development of underdevelopment’encapsulates the key idea. ‘Underdevelopment’ isn’t something that exists in the absence of ‘development’, but in its presence. So a key question in this tradition is how international commerce created a capitalist world economy with dominant and subordinate geopolitical components – which is still true today, even as the dominance is shifting towards Asia. Since the 1820s, but never before, the average individual’s economic prospects have been conditioned more strongly by their country of birth than by the economic standing of their parents.

Wallerstein introduced the concept of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ into his analysis of the capitalist world system. Essentially, he argued that there was a geopolitical gradation of labour forms, from the ‘free’ wage labour of the European core, to peasantries and/or tenants in the semi-periphery, through to unfree labour (slaves, serfs) in the periphery, and thence foragers or ‘primitive’ agriculturists in the primal world beyond the capitalist world system. I think this remains a useful way of thinking about the geopolitics of contemporary capitalism. The capitalist economy requires a stratum of wealthy consumers who are able to buy its products (hence the ‘free’ wage labourers of the rich world, who have no means of subsistence except their own labour, but a large purchasing power as a result of that labour). But in order to attain the requisite returns on investment it also has to minimise labour costs – which it achieves where it can by giving workers nothing but their subsistence, if that. The geopolitical manifestation of this contradiction is the well-remunerated consumer-wage-labourers of the wealthy core areas, and the poor labourers of the periphery. This creates strong incentives for workers in the periphery to migrate to the core where it’s easier to become a wealthy consumer-labourer, but a capitalist world system can’t be all core and no periphery if it’s to survive – it requires the tension of centre-periphery relations. At the same time, the need for constantly compounding economic growth in the capitalist economy creates the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ – the need to find ever new arenas for investment. This gives capital enormous transformative power in the periphery through its ability to create geopolitical linkage – for example, turning foragers into fur-traders, or self-reliant horticulturists into purveyors of coffee or frozen asparagus, with profound effects on local social relations. Such developments don’t often change the basic geopolitics of core and periphery, but over the longer historical haul sometimes they do. The capitalist economy is globally dynamic. In the long run, core may become periphery and vice versa.

Thus, the “secret scandal of capitalism”, as David Graeber puts it, is that “at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor”. In the Atlantic world system organised by the early modern capitalist powers of western Europe, the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas was a key dynamic – bequeathing disastrous long-term consequences across large parts of the African continent and a host of problems in American societies down to the present. The Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams first mooted the idea that the profits of colonial slavery in the Americas opened the way for the industrial revolution in Europe – and his general thesis, if not the precise details of his analysis, have gained considerable acceptance.

Meanwhile in eastern Europe, cereal export production for the lucrative markets of a prosperously capitalist western subcontinent reinvigorated serfdom. That was one extreme of the peasant experience under capitalism, but overall the picture was complex and mixed. In some times and places, peasants left or lost their land and became wage labourers with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. In others, things went in the opposite direction – the destruction of local polities in the capitalist world-system led to a ‘re-peasantisation’ of local labour, a process which some argue is ongoing, even in wealthy parts of the world such as Europe. Elsewhere, the capitalist economy merely co-opted and re-directed the peasant labour process. Whereas before peasants had produced their own subsistence and then provided surplus in the form of crops, money or labour-service to local polities, under the emerging capitalist world-system many peasants continued to produce their own subsistence, while surrendering their surplus to an increasingly globalised economy – often in the form of new cash crops demanded from the core like sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, indigo, rubber and tropical fruits, which were grown either directly as peasant cash-crops, or on plantations whose labour demands articulated with local peasant economies. Clifford Geertz’s influential study of ‘agricultural involution’ in Indonesia is a case in point. Geertz argued that yields of wet rice are enormously responsive to additional labour inputs (in technical terms, the marginal productivity of labour remains quite constant – wet rice is a relatively non-Malthusian crop). With the subsistence needs of a crowded peasant populace thus taken care of, local and European entrepreneurs working through existing channels of political authority imposed an ecologically complementary but economically extractive sugar cash-cropping regimen on the rice-growing peasantry. This, in Geertz’s opinion, resulted in stasis and ‘involution’, a blocked economic ‘take-off’, with the vast surpluses generated by peasant production once again going elsewhere, just as they did in Goubert’s 17th century France. This kind of peasantry remains widespread today, and it’s important to understand the manner of its insertion into the global capitalist economy. It’s all too commonly believed, even among those who ought to know better, that poor peasant farmers in the world today have been “left behind by modernity”. The truth is that ‘modernity’ has them exactly where it wants them.

Britain emerged in the early modern period as the dominant capitalist-colonial power, perhaps symbolised by its victories across far-flung territories in the Seven Years War (1756-63), which has sometimes been called the first ‘world war’. But not long after that, it got itself in a tangle trying to remember whether to be a tax-state or a tribute-state, losing the USA to the first and perhaps the most successful modern anti-colonial revolt. Doubtless the US revolt was successful in part because it was essentially a family argument within a group of colonizers. The second modern anti-colonial revolt was the slave uprising that turned French Saint-Domingue into Haiti, but it proved much less successful – nervous colonial and slaveholding powers played their part in making sure of that.

It’s tempting to think of the emerging USA as its own geographic world-system in the manner of Wallerstein, with wage labour in its northeastern core, peasant labour in its western semi-periphery and enslaved labour in its southern periphery – which is possibly illuminating, provided it’s not turned into an evolutionary sequence from a ‘backward’ south to a ‘progressive’ northeast. Criticisms of slave plantation production on the grounds of the superior efficiency of free labour as well as the inhumanity of human bondage have long been made, not least in the antebellum politics of the USA out of which emerged the civil war between the ‘free’ north and the slave south. But, just as in early modern Europe, the truth is that capitalism has components of both industrial wage labour and colonial commerce – deciding which is the ‘purer’ form is of less consequence than the historical reality of how people chose to operate in their given circumstances. The western ‘semi-periphery’ was another front in the battle between proponents of slavery and freedom, though the modernist or humanitarian credentials of those struggling to keep it free from slavery shouldn’t be overstated. The Free Soil Party gained the support of black leaders like Frederick Douglass, but its call was to salvage the west “for the Caucasian race” – and racially-divided politics of this sort continued to invest agrarian populism later on in US history.

The peasants of the US western semi-periphery weren’t much like the ones of Geertz’s Indonesia, still less those of Wickham’s medieval ‘peasant mode of production’. In historian Geoff Cunfer’s words the pioneers of the plains “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”. Cunfer does, however, emphasise the skill with which they figured out how to farm the prairies, and defends them against what he sees as over-simplified censure for soil erosion and the dust bowl, arguing that this stemmed fundamentally from longer-range climatic cycles. It’s an interesting point when set alongside the US tradition of agroecological critique, which sees the arrival of European farming methods with the settlers as inherently unsustainable and destructive. Cunfer’s view that settlers steeped in European peasant farming traditions were able to devise a workable new agriculture on the prairies within a few decades is suggestive for future peasant adaptation – as, alas, is his analysis of their failure to work out an effective property regime around water use, and their susceptibility to larger order climatic constraint. Not for the first time in this essay, though, the strongest force for change that emerges was the socio-economic linkages these farmers had to the wider world system, and not the immediate ecological circumstances.  What Cunfer is describing here is essentially the ‘American’ path to capitalism mentioned earlier, pursued on a sparsely populated, demilitarised and expanding colonial frontier by settler-colonists of peasant extraction, often attempting more or less self-consciously to escape the Geertzian fate courted by their counterparts in their countries of origin. Or perhaps we could draw a parallel with debates on the origins of capitalism in England – was the prime mover the ‘lords’ of the northeast, the ‘peasants’ of the west, or the ‘merchants’ of the south? Probably all of them. There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, about the numerous logics of peasant production in the colonial and post-colonial Americas – but for the purposes of this essay, regrettably it’s time to move on…

…Because we need to look at those parts of the world where there was apparently no path to capitalist development, ‘American’ or otherwise. There’s a long intellectual tradition in Europe or ‘the west’ which contrasts European ‘development’ with the stasis or backwardness of other places. It goes at least as far back as 18th century Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu, and despite influential critiques of this ‘Orientalist’ tendency in western scholarship it’s alive and well today among numerous writers, including public intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Jared Diamond. But it’s now fairly clear that modern economic dynamism originated neither in England nor in Europe alone (and national boundaries can mislead: even though ‘England’ was an early capitalist player, capitalist relations were much stronger in some parts of England than others). Even if we retain a traditional obsession with the emergence of capitalism as the sine qua non of ‘development’, a more even-handed contemporary scholarship suggests that there were incipient forms of capitalist development in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East contemporaneously in the early modern period. It can’t be denied that Europe in general and England in particular – along with its colonial offshoots in the New World later on – did rise to global dominance, but historians’ answer as to when this ‘Great Divergence’ occurred in the fortunes of Europe vis-à-vis other civilisations such as China keeps getting later, and is often now put towards the middle of the 19th century.

The question of why it was Europe and not China that became the core region of the modern world system has attracted much – some might say too much – attention in recent scholarship in view of China’s apparent technological and economic superiorities. I don’t propose to assess this literature in great detail – attention has focused mainly on themes such as the Dylanesque ‘leapfrogging’ that a divided European culture area of nascent nation-states was able to achieve over the more unified imperial structure of China, the Geertzian ‘land-sparing’ efficiency of Chinese wet rice cultivation that dampened the need for territorial expansion on agrarian/Malthusian grounds, the rational-bureaucratic structure of imperial China that prevented an alignment of social forces towards high-risk overseas adventures, and the superior revenue-raising capacities of European-style royal absolutist tax states, which doubtless are all relevant considerations.

One analysis I do want to examine in this arena because of its wider ramifications is Mark Elvin’s influential book The Patterns of the Chinese Past. Elvin argued that imperial China experienced ‘high level equilibrium traps’ (HLETs) where the relative rates of income and population growth created equilibrium points that prevented the accumulation of surplus capital – the economy is ‘trapped’ in a state which is stable and efficient, but with no inherent tendency to per capita income growth, which is pulled back to equilibrium by a declining rate of income growth relative to population. This is different from a Malthusian or low-level equilibrium trap where population growth pulls down per capita income, though in some respects the two equilibria can look similar – in both, there’s a pool of cheap labour which militates against automation and technical radicalisation. In the case of the HLET, however, we find an efficient, dynamic and differentiated but intrinsically labour-intensive economy. Such a ‘trap’ has been common in global agrarian and industrial history. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries provides a detailed agronomic overview of what an HLET looks like from a peasant farming perspective in China – a book which, interestingly, has been influential in the contemporary western permaculture and alternative agriculture movements. In any case, in an HLET situation an invention that raises labour productivity may have an appealing engineering logic but it won’t get adopted unless it occurs within an economic logic that favours increased labour productivity. That logic was alien to the Qing China of the early modern world, despite its surpassing technical sophistication, but did manifest in parts of Europe for the reasons described above. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy was ‘static’ – it was historians of East Asia who originally coined the term ‘industrious revolution’ to capture this different, labour-intensive and more agrarian path towards prosperity – a term later adopted by De Vries to capture an aspect of the rather different ‘western’ development path. In the hands of (Orientalist?) western scholars, more pejorative terms are applied to the ‘Asian’ path – the language of ‘traps’ or of an ‘involution’ reliant on hard manual labour on the farm, which is easily transmogrified into putatively anti-romantic dismissals of small-scale farming in favour of the western path of industrial farming. I’ll come back to this point presently – and use Elvin’s thinking on HLETs in a different context to tracking Europe’s divergence from China. Still, Elvin’s thesis that capitalist development in Europe enabled it to overcome the ‘trap’ of agricultural involution, ultimately giving it the economic and military power to dominate the Asian empires, is certainly thought-provoking.

But maybe a more plausible approach to explaining the ‘great divergence’ would focus less on what didn’t happen in China, and more on what did happen in Europe – not so much in relation to capitalist developments in the countryside of the kind emphasised by Brenner, but the structure of its colonial commerce. The arguments that I find most convincing go something like this: the eclipse of the Roman Empire and the travails of feudalism left the European sub-continent rather behind the game compared to the great empires of Asia, but its internecine conflicts within the shadowed shell of Rome produced a handful of competing, tightly-organised and militarily sophisticated proto-‘national’ polities remote from the main currents of the Asiatic trading world, which enabled them to innovate with new political economies – another case of the historical ‘leap-frogging’ I mentioned earlier. Blocked from commercial expansion eastwards by powerful Islamic states, instead they developed trans-oceanic empires, which were given a considerable boost by the discovery of the New World. Trans-oceanic trade was risky, fearfully expensive and offered only long-term (but potentially spectacular) returns on investment, thus prompting the development of complex new fiscal instruments around risk, debt, state-private partnerships and joint stock organisation which were unknown in the east (Qing China didn’t develop debt finance). David Graeber has argued that the violence of Europe’s colonial-commercial expansion, which at times reached almost demented levels, is explicable in terms of these dynamics of debt in highly militarised societies. Maybe so – or else one might look to the specifics of European racism. Whatever the case, trans-oceanic colonial-commercial conquest fed into Europe’s spiral of capital accumulation and ultimately enabled it to win key confrontations in the east – Commodore Perry in Yokohama, the Opium Wars in China, the East India Company turning the tables on India’s textile industry. ‘The imperialism of free trade’ is often an apposite term.

An important issue in the expansion of European trade is what was actually being traded. Attention often focuses on the ‘preciosities’ of bullion and spices driven by elite demand, but as the economy capitalised itself the incentive was for agriculture in the ‘core’ to focus on higher value products (eg. meat and vegetables) while displacing the production of staples to more peripheral areas such as Eastern Europe (and, later, North America). Again, this can be told as a dark story of peasant dispossession by commercially-oriented landowners – most famously in Britain in relation to the Highland Clearances of a later period – but also as a brighter story of peasant release from the travails of growing the lord’s grain on his demesne in favour of a more remunerative small-scale agriculture. And even in Scotland, though it’s true that sometimes ‘the sheep ate the people’ the ‘modernisation’ of Scottish agriculture is a somewhat more complex tale. Ironically, with the advent of mechanised agriculture and the relative costs of fuel and labour the situation is now reversed, with agriculture in the core dominated by the large-scale mechanised production of staples, and agriculture in the ‘periphery’ contributing more of the high value, labour-intensive products.

Another part of this story concerning the focus of European capitalist trade is the way that elite commodities such as sugar were turned into cheap mass commodities available to ordinary working-class people (and indeed crucial to their changing role within the economy). Champions of capitalism often highlight this ability to furnish high value elite items to ordinary people, but maybe sugar – an environmentally-destructive quasi-narcotic crop with negative health consequences, produced historically by millions of chattel slaves and wage slaves – works as a metaphor for what’s left unsaid in this sunny version of the capitalist vision.

15 thoughts on “The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 6. Capitalism II – Cores and Peripheries

  1. My post last week on livestock seemed to make a slightly larger ripple in cyberspace than my usual offerings. Ah well, it’s an issue that always has legs –
    Hmmm, sounds a bit fishy. Aquaculture of fin fish doesn’t have a leg to stand on I suppose. Whatever would the Finns say to that? Tis not a red herring either – the proportion of farmed fish globally continues to increase. Fish and chips anyone?

  2. Hi Chris,
    I think I may have figured out what has been troubling me about your history of capitalism. I will not presume to know what your feelings are regarding capitalism, but when I read about it being discussed as a way of allocating resources and distributing labor, I always feel like something is being left out. The murder. Yes, I associate capitalism with murder. I know that this is only just my subjective bias, and that plenty of other economic systems have used murder as a central tactic. I know that a steady-state economy often entails infanticide, for instance, but there is something about capitalism that seems to make murder easier.

    When I read those nice, polite New York Times columnists preaching about bringing the benefits of development to some third world country, I can’t help thinking of King Leopold in the Congo.

    Maybe it is the liquid, soluble nature of money and its capitalist abstractions that provide some sort of insulation between the recipients of the money and the profitable crimes that generate it. There is an important difference between pointing a gun at someone to take their property and owning a share of stock in a company that points guns at people to take their property. Have you ever had a conversation about politicians and/or bankers with a combat veteran who had figured out why he had been sent to war?

    I don’t believe that capitalism was invented expressly to provide plausible deniability – I think it was developed to maximize economic leverage – but I can’t escape the notion that the distance that capitalism provides from the profit-crimes is a major point in its popularity.

    Also, and you may have alluded to this, I think capitalism requires a certain cultural foundation. Perhaps this foundation is the topic of your whole essay, but I am interested in what particular cultural precursors must be in place before capitalism (or its imperialist variant) can emerge. What failures of empathy.

    I don’t claim to know anything about Ming Dynasty China, and I am not extolling their virtues here, but I cannot imagine any European country mounting anything like the Zheng He expeditions, and then doing what China did. They scrapped the fleet, and decided against building what would have been a hugely profitable overseas empire.
    Just 60 years later, a much less capable set of European countries showed no such restraint. What were the crucial differences, I wonder?

    • Excellent comment and questions, Eric. I’d hope that my writing about capitalism doesn’t merely portray it as a way of allocating resources and distributing labor but also emphasises it as an exercise of power – nakedly coercive in some situations and implicit/hegemonic in others. However, I agree with you that in seeking to put it into historical context, it’s easy to efface its homicidal core. David Graeber, whose work strongly influenced my essay, writes along similar lines to you:

      “There are moral dangers here. To take what might seem an “objective”, macro-economic approach to the origins of the world economy would be to treat the behaviour of early European explorers, merchants and conquerors as if they were simply rational responses to opportunities – as if this were just what anyone would have done in the same situation. This is what the use of equations so often does: make it seem perfectly natural to assume that, if the price of silver in China is twice what it is in Seville, and inhabitants of Seville are capable of getting their hands on large quantities of silver and transporting it to China, then clearly they will, even if doing so requires the destruction of entire civilisations….Any number of civilisations have probably been in a position to wreak havoc on the scale that the European powers did in the 16th & 17th centuries…but almost none actually did so”.

      As alluded to in my essay above, Graeber argues that there is a ‘psychology of debt’ involving “unprincipled, cold-blooded calculation with outbursts of almost inexplicably vindictive cruelty” which Europeans unleashed on themselves but more particularly on those they colonised – for example, by the Spanish conquistadores, described by Graeber essentially as heavily-indebted desperadoes who felt “the frantic urgency of having to convert everything around oneself into money, and rage and indignation at having been reduced to the sort of person who would do so”.

      This seems right to me, but as you say it also requires a prior cultural foundation. Back in my academic days I wrote a book called ‘Natural Hierarchies’ on the historical sociology of racial ideology which tried to examine this cultural foundation. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone should wrestle with the turgid prose of that particular volume, but essentially what I tried to argue was that there were ways of thinking about the nature of being a person, of living in a community, and of economic transactions which emerged over the long haul in European culture and culminated in the kind of people described by Graeber who were able to close their consciences to almost any moral scruples in their economic interactions with various other kinds of people. I’m not sure I quite nailed the issue in that book, but I still think the basic approach I was trying to take was correct.

      All that leaves outstanding the ‘moral dangers’ mentioned by Graeber, and yourself. In trying to ‘explain’ the nature of European capitalism and colonialism have I effaced its evil? Maybe. It’s a perennial issue, as for example in the sort of public debates we have today about explaining the causes of fundamentalist terrorism versus righteous condemnation of it. I don’t really have any answers, other than to suggest the need for a bit of caution in how we frame the exceptionalism of European colonial violence. I think it’s plausible to argue that a lot of troubling features of the modern world – racism, nationalism, colonial domination, capitalism – were pioneered in Europe, but people in other parts of the world have enthusiastically adopted them and coopted them to their own local purposes. So I don’t think there’s some kind of ethnic European core to the pathologies of the modern world.

      • Yes, I think I agree with David Graeber mostly. There were some unique circumstances though. My reading of the Aztec wars is that they were largely brought down by their own corruption and their history of brutality toward their neighbors giving Cortez ample willing allies. But the Inca and the various North American nations were largely defeated by alien diseases.

        So I remind myself that the Europeans were only just the latest and most successful pillagers from a long line stretching back… how many millennia? But they pioneered an especially cruel form, and somehow got it to be popular and ubiquitous. In my reading of the history of the Columbian catastrophe, it comes up again and again how the natives just couldn’t believe that the Europeans could be so greedy and bereft of honor. They weren’t surprised by the murder, it was the complete lack of conscience.

        I have to limit my reading of history because it makes me too sad. But what makes me angry is that none of the true story gets told to school children. The history curriculum here is nothing but bland victors’ lies, and an occasional ‘mistakes were made’. I think even most of the teachers have no idea how bad it was.

      • Well, that last bit didn’t end up sounding quite like I meant it.
        I do not believe that Europeans or European Americans are/were uniquely evil. There is too much competition, and besides, I am their progeny.
        There have certainly been glimmers of conscience among the conquest. And I am sure that you are correct that many of the operators on the ground were trapped in the system and couldn’t imagine anything but taking it on its own terms.

        I don’t have the expertise to say whether western capitalism is uniquely evil. It is certainly very evil.
        And uniquely pervasive. At this very moment some proponents of western style capitalism are busy eradicating the last remnant populations of the older, less rapacious societies. I would feel a lot better if I had any inkling that there was anything that could be done about that.

        • I can feel your frustration with our modern madness as I read your comments Eric – well put. The difficulty of identifying good and evil in all this is one I’ve wrestled with myself, and if course there’s no satisfactory resolution. I do appreciate the wisdom of whoever said that the battle between good and evil is fought within every one of us, rather than between any particular groups of us, but it doesn’t really help with the specifics!

          My feeling is that the European origins of the current global capitalist hegemony owe a lot to notions of individualist penitential spirituality, with roots deep in the middle ages. The libidinal need to criticize one’s indebted self, and then perhaps to do whatever is necessary to clear oneself, is a genealogical descendent of that, though I’d be hard pressed to justify it – right now I think it’s an interesting thread to pull, but I might well be wrong.

          Importantly, it’s not the only descendent of a once hegemonic Christendom, and in no way inevitable – I wouldn’t want to ‘blame’ religion. But when seeking the ancestral incarnations of common psychological tendencies I think it’s a place to start. Tracking the chicken-and-egg entanglement of such tendencies with the opportunities enabled by power relations through history is one reason I’m enjoying Chris’s series so much.

          Incidentally, to go a little off-topic, I’ve recently noticed rather worrying hints of ecomodernism in the writings of some of those surfing the current wave of the resurgent Left in Britain, centred round notions of an increasingly automated economy, especially something called ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’. Chris, I think your critical muscles might have their work cut out if the promising nature of some recent political developments is to head towards the desirable small farm future.

          • The problem is not human labor, but the energy flux that is guided by that labor. Even if robots do the work, it makes no difference in resource throughput if humans are consuming the same amount of stuff.

            I also think it is true that the rich are more energy efficient per dollar of expenditure. Redistributing their wealth to the poor would only increase consumption.

            From an environmental standpoint the structure of the economy means nothing, it is only the aggregate use of resources, however that use is organized, that affects the biosphere.

      • Hi Chris,
        thanks for this series and specifically for this exchange with Eric. Reading Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” which is admirable in many ways, I kept thinking that the elephant in the room was obviously the murderous tendencies of the Europeans i.e. what their culture allowed them to do. Not to essentialize, but it was just there, sort of staring one in the face.

  3. Thanks for the additional comments. Yes agreed Eric, and Michelle, we inheritors of the colonial mantle really don’t tell this history fairly or well. As to what we can do to create a less rapacious post-capitalist society, you’ll just have to keep reading as I have all the answers in my next cycle of blog posts after this one. Well some of them. Sort of. However, a point I make later in this essay is the replicant nature of capitalism – its virus-like ability to attach itself to numerous social forms and make copies of itself. So our work is cut out.

    Andrew – following on from the above, re your point on ‘fully automated luxury communism’ this is an unsurprising development – sounds a lot like Srnicek & Williams’ influential ‘Inventing the Future’ and their critique of folk politics. Again, as I argue later in this essay there’s a contemporary tendency to think of capitalism and communism as deeply opposed, but the truth is that they’re only very slightly different variants on the same modernist theme. Unsurprising though it is, I still find the notion of automated luxury communism quite depressing and expressive of the cargo cult aspect of modern capitalism – the relentless championing of wealth and celebrity lifestyles has finally rendered political radicals incapable of doing anything but replicating in alienated, magical forms the major pathologies of the system they critique. Leigh Phillips’ writing, as discussed by Ruben on here recently, is a case in point.

    Regarding your point about penitential spirituality I think you’re onto something with that. I guess Weber is the key forebear for that line of thinking, but it’s wider than simply a protestant ethic investing capitalism. I’d say that two other related factors buried in medieval European history are, first, Christian-Muslim relations, especially as manifested in the crusades and then the Iberian reconquest, and the tendency for this to be expressed in somatic terms; and, second, the very unitary notions political sovereignty in Christian polities, of who’s part of the nation and who isn’t, which basically stem from the idea that only the sovereign can partake of divine authority, that the only true sovereign is Christ, but that secular men can attain some of that essence. It’s not a line of thinking I emphasised in the essay, but I think it’s a fruitful line of enquiry.

    Joe – I’m not sure I agree with you that the rich are more energy efficient consumers. I haven’t looked at the literature on this too closely, but my guess would be that there’s something like a U-shaped relationship which would absolutely commend redistribution. A world with fewer polluted and inefficient shantytowns, fewer cars and aeroplanes, more bicycles etc. There’s also been a large increase in the global super-wealthy in recent years, whose overall impact in view of their numbers may still be small but whose individual impact is prodigious. I agree that the overall use of resources is what ultimately matters – but this is affected by the economic structures in place.

    Anyway, thanks for some interesting comments.

  4. Energy intensity per dollar by income group is hard to measure since doing so requires calculating the indirect embodied energy of purchases, but the rich tend to spend a lot of money on prestige, which doesn’t use as much energy per dollar spent. The embodied energy of a $600 bottle of wine is more than a $6 bottle, but not nearly 100 times more. Similarly, the embodied energy of an Renoir painting is similar to that of a black velvet painting of dogs playing poker, but they have considerably different prices. An antique Persian carpet probably has less embodied energy than a machine made polyester fiber carpet, but costs many times as much per square foot.

    I could only find relatively old reference information on this subject, but what I did find clearly showed declining energy intensity per dollar as income rises, rather than the U-shaped relationship you suspect would happen. This is one reason why rising energy prices have such a regressive impact, not only do the poor spent a higher percentage of their money on energy, but the energy intensity per dollar is also higher.

    The per capita energy consumption of the wealthy is vastly greater than that of the poor and there is a great deal of injustice in that fact, but I was pointing out that making economic structures more fair may not have the environmental impact one desires. Fully Automated Luxury Communism may treat people far more equally than capitalism but have the same or worse environmental impact for an equivalent GDP. Perhaps I should have been more clear in my previous comment that I was referring more to the distributional structure of an economy than its means of production.

    • Thanks for that Joe. I agree with your last paragraph, and surely the per capita energy consumption of the wealthy is the key point. I wouldn’t dispute your points about the relative energy intensities of expensive wines and paintings compared to their cheaper alternatives, but then there are the plane flights, Sunseeker yachts, energy guzzling mansions etc. As I understand it, global median per capita income is around $3,000 pa whereas global mean per capita income is around $16,000. Measurement issues aside, I’d guess that the disparity between those two figures gives some indication of how skewed the global distribution of the money pot is. So suppose the overall size of the pot stayed the same but the distribution was much more tightly circumscribed around that $16,000 mean. It’s not a likely scenario – greater distributional equity would surely tend to reduce the absolute size of the pot for the reasons alluded to in my essay above, but just hypothetically what would the environmental impact be? I’m not sure. You could be right that all those billions of newly rich $16,000 earners would increase the negative impacts, but on the other hand with mean per capita income in the US for example currently at around $57,000 (in PPPs) it may be more than offset by all those newly ‘average’-earning westerners, whose environmental impacts currently are disproportionate to their numbers. Presumably somebody or other has done some more sophisticated modelling of this – I’d be interested to see it.

      • Presumably somebody or other has done some more sophisticated modelling of this

        One would think so. In fact this looks to me like something that might be in Ruben’s wheelhouse. The sophistication of the modeling is certainly going to be as controversial as any aspect. A kW may well be the same amount of power for all concerned, rich and poor alike… but the price of a kW varies all over the place. Source of power to generate that kW, distribution loss, market volatility for resources, political issues (re Keystone pipeline; Russian/European gas issues, that sort of thing) all weigh in. One might well also consider prevailing winds, latitude, elevation, annual precipitation, temperature regimes, as these will impact both the supply side (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal) and the demand side (irrigation, air conditioning, lighting, and so forth).

        Don’t get me wrong, I like models – sort of. But as much as I like to think we naked apes are kinda smart… well, there are depths we’ve yet to plumb. And this looks like one of them to me. A wise person once convinced me that trip of thousand miles begins with a single step. So I suppose we should get on with it – as difficult as it might appear.

      • Page 46 of “Energy Economics: Growth, Resources and Policies”, R.J. Eden, et al, has a nice table that shows how energy consumption and energy intensity vary between economic classes. The book is from 1981, but I doubt that the basic relationships have changed much since then. The table clearly shows the huge increase in per capita energy use with increase in wealth and also the decline in energy intensity (MJ/$) with that same increase.

        • OK, I’ll try to look into this some more. Maybe Vaclav Smil’s new book that I’ve just started reading will have something to say about it. I agree with you that redistribution alone doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it still seems unclear what the overall environmental impact of a tighter distribution would be.

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