The critique of relationships

Published online 2 April 2015.

Relationships and natureMuch recent literature labels this time in which we live as the “Anthropocene Era” — the term refers to a specific era of natural history in which human beings institute drastic changes upon life on Earth — in other words, the present time.  The term “anthropocene” literally means “the era of humans.”

The ecosystemic meltdown currently taking place on planet Earth, the ecological disaster we currently face, is defined through the “Anthropocene Era” term as the result of “human activity,” without any reference to the human social relationships which stand as the most proximate causes of this meltdown.  In short, what we’re being told is that human beings are ecological monsters pure and simple.  The Wikipedia entry on the Anthropocene offers a simple definition:

The Anthropocene is a proposed geologic chronological term for an epoch that begins when human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

A number of questions are begged by this definition.  The most obvious one is that of what counts as a “significant global impact.”  From the Wikipedia entry again:

The Anthropocene has no precise start date, but based on atmospheric evidence may be considered to start with the Industrial Revolution (late eighteenth century).[4][7] Other scientists link the new term to earlier events, such as the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution (around 12,000 years BP).

But we can of course dig even further.  The human race has been on this planet for around 200,000 years.  What is so special about this portion (and indeed we are talking about a small portion indeed, maybe 6% of the total timespan) of human existence on the planet that it is characterized by such pronounced ecosystemic impact?  Well, clearly, human organization was at one point characterized by the development of agriculture, and then at later points by sophisticated technologies, from metalworking to electrical systems to air and space travel.  Perhaps, then, we might speak of a “technocene,” an era of geological history in which technologically-empowered humans changed the planet.  Insofar as our relationship to the planet was massively altered by technological dissemination, we can say that we have changed the ecosystems of the planet.  It isn’t just us, then — it’s our technology.  But the fact that we have technology doesn’t mean we’re obliged to use it destructively.  Our relationships, to the planet and to each other, are at fault.An approach that gets us closer to the human relationship problem is suggested in an article highlighted in Jacobin online magazine this week: “The Anthropocene Myth.”  Its subtitle is: “Blaming all of humanity for climate change lets capitalism off the hook.”  Author Andreas Malm does not regard humans as ecological monsters: rather, for him “capital, not humanity as such” is the ecological monster in the house.  It isn’t just us, then, it’s capital, that changes our ecosystems, and for that we can speak of a “capitalocene.”

But what is capital?  What is this “capital” that supposedly defines our relationships to each other and to the planet in the “capitalocene”?

Mainstream economics, that most axiomatic (i.e. ideological) of disciplines, imagines capital to be a mere thing.  Buildings, machinery; that’s capital to a mainstream economist.  That definition won’t help us understand the relationships defined by capital.  Karl Marx, in his critique of political economy, imagined capital to be money designed to make more money — M-C-M’.  In that definition, capital is not a thing but a process, a process of exchanges.

If you dig further, however, that definition of capital reveals a relationship.  Capital is the relationship between the capitalist, who is a “rational miser” in Marx’s terms, and the rest of the world, which the capitalist regards as a “free gift” for the taking.  The act of capitalist taking is called “capital accumulation.”  The fact that the act of taking is capitalist business, rather than mere plunder (which Marx called “primitive accumulation“) does not disturb the mission goal.  The mission goal of capital is to establish a capitalist class, a class of owners, as opposed to a working class, a class of workers.  It is in the back and forth between the two classes that one can observe class warfare, and class struggle.

The concepts of making money, of industry, and of consumption have been insufficiently explored as concepts indicating human relationships.  It is because we have a specific relationship to each other, a relationship of exchange between capitalist business owners and plebeian consumer/ workers, that our relation to the environment is so pernicious.  If we are to mitigate climate change, then, we will have to change the relationships we have to each other, ending the old relationships and creating new ones.

It’s all about the relationshipsThe idea behind this diary is that we can judge a society by the relationships it keeps.  When the Walton family owns as much as the bottom 42% of Americans combined, you in fact have a class society, in which an elite of wealthy owners confronts a mass society of workers/ consumers.  The fact that we are a mass society, moreover, indicates our relationships to each other in another way — we don’t really have any.  We are mere “sovereign individuals,” and we’re supposed to behave in the way indicated by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she famously said in 1987 that there was no such thing as society.  Here’s a longer section of the quotefrom the interview with Woman’s Own magazine:

And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.

Now I recognize that Thatcher was voicing a particular, ideological outlook on society: that it doesn’t exist.  But her quote illustrates the tenuous nature of “relationship” under capitalism.  In fact, Thatcher’s extended quote begs the question of why “individual men and women” should bother with their “neighbours” at all if there’s “no such thing as society.”  If our relationships are framed by capitalism, if we are mere consumers of the same stock of consumer goods or if we exchange our labor with the same set of rich owners, and if we are merely “sovereign individuals” whose relationship to each other is cemented by nothing more serious than economic exchange, then perhaps the best we can do is to get out of each other’s way.It is in this realm of human relations, then, that the advocates of the term “Anthropocene era” seem to echo Thatcher.  But if we really are sovereign individuals destroying the Earth’s ecosystems with our technologies, maybe it is because society has made us this way.

This brings us to an interesting text titled Bowling Alone.  Robert Putnam’s (2000) book Bowling Alone, written from a communitarian perspective, lamented the decline in political participation, civic engagement, and social connection in recent times.  In truth, the trends Putnam cited were the mere acting-out of a set of principles that was already there from the beginnings of capitalist society.  When people have no necessary connection with each other, eventually they have no interesting connection to each other.  Is it any coincidence that “about 40 to 50 per cent of married couples in the United States divorce“?

Changing our relationships, beginning with food sovereigntyThere’s a recent interview with Slavoj Zizek in Der Spiegel Online that begins amusingly as follows:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Žižek, the financial and economic crisis showed just how vulnerable the free market system can be. You have made it your task to examine the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. Are you anticipating a new revolution?Žižek: Unfortunately not.

One neglected reason why most of world society views more capitalism as inevitable and revolution as impossible is that the basis in new human relationship that would be the product of a “new revolution” is so hard to find.  In this category I would suggest looking at the idea of food sovereignty as a pretext for the replacement of capitalist individualism with local, community solidarity.  Here’s the definition cited in the Wikipedia entry:

At the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué, Mali, 27 February 2007, about 500 delegates from more than 80 countries adopted the “Declaration of Nyéléni”,[2] which says in part:    Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.

What better reason to band together than to do so in defense of control over the basic necessities of life, starting with food?  In this regard, local groups in non-elite nations are leading the way.  Here is a food sovereignty pledge copied from the La Via Campesina website:

We the adivasis, dalits, peasants, shepherds and co-producer citizens of Telangana, India, assert our collective rights to our land, forests, water, air, indigenous seeds and animals, our diverse food cultures, our knowledge systems and local markets. We shall safeguard our sacred relationship with Mother Earth and protect this abundance of life for future generations. We declare that it is women of our communities who are leading this movement.

In a previous diary I suggested that food sovereignty might suggest a basis for genuine climate change mitigation.  Rather than trusting the Powers That Be to take good care of the climate for us, rather than trusting them to make climate pledges they can’t keep for economies they don’t really care about, we need to take control of the land and the ecosystems so that we can redefine our “relationship with Mother Earth” ourselves.I would insist, though, that food sovereignty is just a start — the new communities to replace the disaster of exhausted capitalism will have to adopt not just food sovereignty but water sovereignty, sleep sovereignty, and sovereignty over all of the other necessities of human existence.  People should expect that, in organized communities, they will be working to put together their own necessities rather than picking them up at the store.

We can expect, unfortunately, that movements for local, communitarian sovereignty will begin in places in which the capitalist system has completely failed — in which case the movement to establish “sovereignty” may be in a race against time in the wake of ecodisasters.

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