capitalist discipline and ecological discipline, or van der Pijl for beginners

Originally posted online 3 December 2006.  This was a post where I introduced myself to the readership of .

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.

Political Economy and HistoryLet’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.

American history: the history of capitalism in a nutshellKees 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.

2) 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.

3) 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).

4) 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.

Politics In This EraFor 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.

Where We Might AgreeNow, 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.


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