Sunday, October 31, 2004

Deja Vu All Over Again

1. In his opening chapter of Capital, where he describes the contradiction and interpenetration that makes up the commodity, Marx essentially, and successfully, reduces the complex organism of capital, to its single cell and that single cell to its genetic components. In the existence of commodity as both object and value, there resides the class organization of production; the ownership of the conditions of labor as private property and the existence of labor as labor power, as an unencumbered, detached commodity, useful only in its need for exchange. From this single cell flows the genealogy of capital; the ongoing conflict between the means of production and the relations of production; the recurring, necessary, overproduction; the problems of reproduction; the essential attacks on wage rates and living standards; the ultimate destruction of the means of production themselves.

That at every moment in its development capital has relied, sustained, restored "backward" modes of exploitation, where labor is enslaved, indentured, encumbered by land-debt is above all the exact manifestation of the conflict at the core of capital, between private property and expanded production. The great plasticity of the capitalist markets easily absorbs the products of those modes as if they were commodities produced by free labor, while condemning these pre-existing modes to temporary, peripheral, roles in the continued development of capital itself.

At every equal moment, and against the alliance of property owners, capital has disturbed, disrupted, initiated the impulse to the transformation of those same exact modes. The as if nature of the pre-existing modes then confronts the modern conditions of labor, the development of the class of wage-laborers. The reproduction of capital involves the reproduction of all the anomalies, deviations, deformations surrounding the emergence of capitalist property and wage labor. It could not be otherwise.

2. Those members of the hydrocarbon depletion cult can point to the victory of the Boston Red Sox in the misnamed World Series as one more sign, one more ominous omen, that the universe as we know it is about to end. This combination of ecstasy and obliteration, long a staple of religious sects, secret societies, and trance parties, has its origins in nothing other than the sanctions against sexual pleasure, where the ecstasy of orgasm triggers torrents of guilt and the wish for punishment.

Ecstasy and obliteration have their part to play in capitalist reproduction, but they play those parts as moments in that reproduction; temporary manifestations, designed for and destined to be eclipsed by the conditions of profit.

There is little evidence of hydrocarbon depletion. Reserves of coal have hardly vanished; the truth about natural gas is that supplies have barely been explored, much less developed; that oil reserves and production are economic, not geological, categories, driven by terms of profit.

In fact, the overproduction of oil is the driving force in the world markets. A declining rate of return in the petroleum industry has always prefigured the OPEC price interventions, and this one, since 1999, is no exception.

Now overproduction has nothing to do with need. The aggrandizing of wage-labor, the expropriation of value and its realization as profit, turns the object of production into a mere host. And here, oil plays host to capital's core contradiction. The means of production have overgrown their ability to return enough profit quickly to sustain the reproduction of capital. Private property, the preservation of such property, stands arrayed against any and all terms of development. And so the price of oil lashes the general economy forward into more intense overproduction as every capitalist enterprise presses harder upon wage-labor in order to reduce cost and increase yields, and then the price of oil brings the process to a screeching halt, depleting these enterprises, redistributing their momentary profit recoveries to the oil companies.

The oil majors themselves are awash in cash and, confirming the current overproduction, are distributing some of that cash to their shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks, rather than increasing exploration and development budgets. The seven major Western oil companies are expected to generate free cash of some 73 billion dollars. ExxonMobil already has a cash reserve of $20 billion, this after buying back $7 billion dollars worth of shares. The CFO of Total is on record as stating that giving cash back to shareholders is a better use of funds than investing in capital intensive projects that may not reap adequate returns.

In the masked world of commodity production, history is banished by inevitability, society by nature, and the useful objects themselves by the conditions of profit. If the commodity itself is but an object transformed into a host, then the ideologies and ideologists of shortage, scarcity, depletion, entropy are but hosts for this transfer of profit, and for obscuring the social, class, origins of the current predicament. Despite professions of radicalism, inevitability and always the scarcity theorists are driven to conclude that class is nothing, geology is everything. All that can be accomplished is, at best, a reduced rate of descent into those pre-existing modes of production capital has maintained throughout its existence.

3. Class is everything, however. It is the essential component of commodity production, of the expropriation of labor power, its transformation into value, the value's realization of profit. It, class, is the as if facilitating all exchanges in the world market. In deconstructing the commodity at the core of capitalist production, Marx exploded political economy--the ideological obfuscation of capital's fundamental social relation of production; the masking of capital's inherent conflict between means and relations of production, between private property and social development; the necessity of overproduction. Most importantly, Marx identifies that particular agent of change, that specific social formation that can emancipate itself from the overproduction, the attacks on living standards only by emancipating production itself from private ownership.

A program of transformation then becomes the concluding volume of Capital, a volume that emerges with all the deformations, approximations, deviations of the conditions surrounding its emergence, a volume edited through and by the class struggle itself.

In the current predicament, the outcome of the US elections are immaterial. Certainly the campaign of Ralph Nader is worthy of critical support: support in that no element of Nader's program can be realized without changing the class basis of the institutions of government; critical that nowhere in Nader's program or Nader's organization is there any recognition of that need.

The strands of revolutionary development-- weak, fragile as they are-- pass through manifestations such as the Million Worker March and those actions putting forth a class-based political party.

S Artesian

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Slippery Sisters

1.If the bourgeoisie were an imaginative bunch, they would imagine themselves to be nostalgic, fondly focusing forever backwards on the golden era, that market and marketable Eden, when private property, growing profits, and expanding reproduction of all of capital existed all at once, co-joined head and toe. Memory persists for the bourgeoisie, but it persists as delusion, as shared madness, the collective hallucination of the class of private proprietors. History doesn't exist for the bourgeoisie, since capital is the end, the goal, of all history. Memory exists for the purpose of denying current conditions. Just like propaganda. Like advertising.

So, whether looking backward twenty years to the regime of that pitchman for the soap trade and death squad capitalism, or backward ten years to that of the spokesman for globally positioned, krispy-kremed, digitally enhanced overproduction, the bourgeoisie are engaged in product placement-- as if there were happy days to be had, good times to roll by purchasing this or that commodity.

Everything the bourgeoisie have ever produced, marketed, dreamed, hustled -- from pharmaceuticals to philosophy to science is the result of fear and greed.

2. If after 30 years of dismissal and disregard, the Mal(en)thusiastic peak oil theorists now find themselves in hot demand, sought ought by Wall Street journalists, government ministers, on-line dating services, primitive communists and anti-communists alike, it's not because the pseudo-science of "peak production" has become more accurate, it's not because the prospects for a permanent non-nuclear winter have replaced global warming as the number one apocalyptic theory. It's because fear is the hand maiden to greed. The sounds of these two hands, fear and greed, clapping, is the snap of fifty dollar bills being added to the bankrolls of the petroleum majors. Grant's new tomb is a 42 gallon drum.

The Malenthusiasts have altered their theory, putting a little smiley face of their hydrocarbon die-off symphony, changing it from the end of petroleum dirge, to an up-tempo, apocalypso limbo. "How low can you go?" is the sub-text of their new music, proclaiming not an end to oil, but an end to cheap oil. Suddenly or not so suddenly, cold hard physical science has given way to economic categories of price and cost. Big surprise. Or not. Fear and greed.

3. Market economics and pseudo-science reach mutual accommodation, more or less, in references to capacity constraint, demand growth, and accelerating consumption. Oil, like bourgeois politics, can then pretend to be all things all at once-- abundant and scarce, cheap and dear, more important and less essential, post-peak and pre-dawn.

But "the economy," global and national, is not growing dramatically; petroleum "productivity," dollar output per BTU is not declining; transportation demand is not soaring.

For the past three years, US real private non-residential fixed investment, the real bell-weather, non bell-shaped curve measuring the success of capital's self-expansion, its reproduction, has been below its 2000 peak. Annual spending on industrial equipment has declined each year since 2000. In 2003, the spending was 14 percent below the 2000 mark. Spending on transportation equipment, and petroleum provides 95 percent of the energy consumed in transportation, was 25 percent below the 2000 mark. Total net new non-residential fixed investment for 2003 was only 40 percent of its 2000 measure.

Capacity utilization rates for industry remain below the 2001 level. While industrial output for 2002 and 2003 measured approximately 12 percent above the 1997 mark, once high-technology production is removed for the analysis, industrial output is actually below the 1997 level.

Between 2000 and 2003, overall US energy consumption declined 1 percent. Per capita energy consumption, however, has declined 4 percent, and consumption per dollar of GDP has fallen 5 percent. In three years, total petroleum consumption has increased by 3.5 percent, hardly a spectacular rate of growth.

The global economy likewise has not surpassed rates of growth recorded prior to 1997. World trade did grow between 2002 and 2003, but almost 70 percent of that growth was an accounting adjustment for the decline of the US dollar. Real trade grew at 4.5 percent, below the rate of increase recorded in the 1990s, while manufacturing grew only 2.5 percent. None of this growth has exceeded pre-existing capacity in transport or production.

China? China is not so much an economic miracle as it is the force fed goose, about to explode from an enlarged liver.

4. Hubbert the king based his analysis on a single, critical assumption-- that all oil production would follow the pattern of a single oil field. The critical assumption has been taken over, uncritically, by the little Hubbertist knaves. But the history of production has not followed this single field pattern. Indeed, even the US, with its steadily declining production has not shown the same steady decline in proven reserves and proved recoverable amounts. Between 1977 and 2002 US cumulative production increased 68.2 billion barrels, 56 percent, to 189.6 billion barrels. Proven reserves, which measured 33.6 billion barrels in 1977 declined only 25 percent to 24.0 billion barrels in 2002. Proven ultimate recovery increased in this period from 155.0 billion barrels to 213.6 billion. Proven reserves actually increased between 1998 and 2002. The disparity between cumulative production and remaining reserves is itself a product of replacement at the drill-bit-- where production has led to more accurate estimates of remaining reserves. This is the pattern that is being repeated right now in Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Sao Tome.

5. However great the utility of oil, its necessity to production and circulation, oil is not the universal solvent, nor the ultimate source of value, neither the aqua regia nor aqua vitae, of capital. Labor time, more precisely, the expropriation of labor time is all that and more, the royal river transporting all the bourgeoisie's goods to market. The bourgeoisie's rate of success in realizing that expropriation becomes manifest in the mass and rate of profit; in the dedication of profit to reproducing the expropriation of labor-time through the application of greater technical inputs-- into expanding production.

1997 stands as the critical year in that process of reproduction, that success and failure in the reproduction of capital, as 1997 saw the collapse of the newly-emerging economies of Asia, a collapse triggered by overproduction; a collapse pre-figured in the overproduction of the semi-conductor industry; overproduction made manifest in the destruction of the former Soviet Union; overproduction reproduced in the collapse of oil prices a year later.

All that has occurred since 1997 has been the manifestation of this overproduction, this failure of reproduction. Today the future is upon us and it looks just like Afghanistan, Iraq, Jenin. It is a future of where the reproduction of capital consists of the destruction of the prospects for any future at all.

S Artesian
9 October 2004

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