Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 10:03:07 AM EST
I was introduced to the work of Mark Jones by Stan Goff, but have to confess I still haven't got around to reading more than a few short excerpts (laziness, plus too much other reading material). Mark (pbuh) was one of a very few marxists willing to come to grips with biotic and physical reality rather than clinging to the fantasies of industrial cornucopianism... or cornucopian industrialism, whatever -- the underlying Christianity, so to speak, of which Communism and Capitalism are the Protestants and Catholics: at each other's throats in righteous rage over what turn out to be fairly minor doctrinal disagreements when viewed from outside by, say a Zen buddhist or an atheist. Whatever... Mark was willing to blow the whistle. I thought I'd share this typically lucid piece from 2000, which Stan tossed at me a few days ago. I wish I had known Mark when he was still alive. Clearly we came to many of the same conclusions by our widely divergent paths.
From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
[text by Mark Jones 2000]
Entropy is of course a key concept in any meaningful discussion about energy. The argument that energy supply is 'infinite' derives from the neo-classical economics concept of substitutability. The argument does not of course (for obvious epistemological reasons) take account of the bounded nature of the planetary energy system or of the entropy involved in any use of energy.
Whether or not sunshine is infinite, the earth is a closed entropic system. The solar fluxes it can capture (by photosynthesis or human photovoltaic technology, or wind (a climatic product of solar energy) or whatever other method) are therefore also limited. Thus it is intuitively obvious that energy supplies available to planetbound humans are by nature limited. There are industry suggestions of capturing helium from the gaseous clouds around Jupiter, and using this as the raw material of the future hydrogen economy. Such talk is suggestive of desperation more than anything else.
The problem with substitutability is that it involves the same kind of leap of faith which Yoshie Furuhashi reminded us was the great French mathematician Pascal's definition of Christianity. You cannot argue with neoclassicals because their faith in markets is not susceptible to reason. As is clear from discussions on this List, some who might define themselves as Marxists also turn out when scratched to be made of different metal.
It is argued that invoking energy as the prime mover of capitalist accumulation is actually a ricardian thing to do, or even Physiocratic. Malcolm Caldwell's highly original book 'Wealth of Some Nations' attracted this kind of criticism when first published in the early 70s. Caldwell argued that capitalism was coterminous with the era of fossil fuel use: it began when coal began to be used extensively in industry and transport, and will end when oil runs out. Malcolm (he was a friend of mine) paid with his life for his visionary ideas, the logic of which drove him to support the kind of sustainable communist utopia which he imagined Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were just then installing in Cambodia. Being himself a communist and a man of action, he went to Cambodia and was assassinated there on Christmas Day in (I think) 1975.
I was influenced by his ideas then and am now: but I did not support his solidarity with the Khmer Rouge and urged him to abandon it (the last time we met and talked about this was in a pub outside Heathrow Airport, from where he was about to depart to Khampuchea; I never saw him again). But there is an awful warning about his fate, and I sympathise a little with the motivations of those who joke about me as a 'Jim Jones apocalypticist'. But they are wrong to identify me with a cause so abhorrent as Pol Pot's. Actually my position is exactly the opposite to Malcolm Caldwell's: I am saying that if we want to avoid that kind of dreadful outcome, we need to not sleepwalk into another and this time final energy crisis.
We need to keep our utopian speculations alive, but place them in the context of a different world from the one which socialists hoped for: a world with a damaged ecosphere, and very little usable energy (orders of magnitude less
In such a world, capital, raw materials and energy will be relatively more valuable factors of production than they are now, and labour will be worth very much less. This is actually a recipe for a return to warlordism, for slavery and for grinding poverty, terrible barbarity and generalised brutality. But it need not be this way, and some societies, for example modern Cuba, show how it can be different. It is Cuba, not Cambodia, which must be our common future.
Energy is a commodity like any other, and its value (and ultimately price) is determined by the socially-necessary abstract labour which it embodies. But energy is also a commodity unlike any other, since it is an input (like labour-power) into all other commodities, and since available energy is the key determinant of the rate of relative surplus-value. The rise in social productivity which is the technical, material correlative of the rate of s-v, can be expressed as the more efficient use of energy in the transformation of objects into commodities. And this applies to energy itself, the appropriation of which has always been subject to technical/material transformation and to increased efficiency and productivity (in material/technical terms, this is the process of 'decarbonisation' according to which energy-bases and industrial systems switch from more to less carbon intensive fuels: from coal, to oil, to gas, to hydrogen; each time an atom of carbon is dropped, capitalism has renewed itself on a new and radically more efficient energy base).
This process by itself goes some way to explain the paradox that although energy is becoming relatively more scarce, its value and price continue to fall and will do so until a qualitative change sets in. At this point the world energy-system, which is constantly being entropically eroded, will flip into a different mode. Production will collapse, capital will be devalued, energy prices will suddenly spike, and a whole new energy-poor world will stand before us in all its bleak glory. This moment, which is the same thing as a Hubbert Peak, is now approaching and has probably already arrived, or anyway, we are passing through the cusp of system-change.
This has happened before. Energy is everywhere, but it is invisible and unseen, does not figure in our calculations or daily thoughts, and designedly so: the more efficient the economy becomes, the less of an issue energy seemingly is. 200 years ago energy came in filthy black sacks and filled the air with fumes. Now it is silent, invisible, omnipresent and omnipotent, so we don't much think about it. But this blindness is the purest form of commodity-fetishism. In ancient Rome people were similarly blind to slaves, and also designedly so.
The institution of slavery was designed to convert human subjects into inhuman objects, mere items of furniture, and socially invisible just as furniture is. The medium through which all social transactions were made was slavery, omnipresent and omnipotent. Roman law itself was based on this categorisation of 'property' according to certain Aristotelian 'properties': thus there was an "instrumentum mutum" [the plough]; an "instrumentum semi-vocale" [the ox] and an "instrumentum vocale" [enslaved ploughboy]. All three were objects.
Such a social order, based on not so much mystification as mass self-hypnosis, obviously could not last, and did not. Slavery always and everywhere collapses.
Modern Americans consume about as many joules of energy as did the average Roman who owned 200 slaves (according to some calculations). This is possible because of the perfection of a vast system of energy supply, which is almost entirely (95%+) petroleum based (even though 20% of US electricity is nuclear, according to some calculations nuclear energy is a net energy sink, i.e., when decommissioning, waste management etc costs are added in, nuclear power stations will turn out to have consumed more energy than they ever produced; they were simply a wasteful subsidy from oil; i.e. they were pharaonic constructs, social icons whose only meaning was to evoke a faustian dream of limitless power, but a dream having no more social utility than a pyramid).
Natural gas delivers up to 100 times as much energy as it costs to produce. No 'alternative' comes near and most of the alleged alternatives turn out on inspection to be either uselessly inflexible or actually to be energy sinks. Fuel cells, PV's and biomass ethanol almost certainly are sinks, or else of almost no net benefit. (We cannot return to coal, which in any case will cease to be economically recoverable even in the well-endowed US, in less than a generation). It will not be possible to support an industrial behemoth like EuroAmerica on the basis of so-called 'renewables', which in all cases anyway depend for their development on cross-subsidies from fossil fuels. All of this is well-known stuff by now.
Once you accept that energy is limited and that oil-based capitalist civilisation will collapse, then your political outlook is bound to undergo a radical change. As some on this List have argued, we should then be already looking at the social, political etc implications, the implications for praxis. We should and we must. Everything we do and say (politically speaking) should be refracted through the prism of our understanding of this truly defining moment in the history of capitalism.