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Accumulation Crisis as Ecological Crisis: The End of Cheap Food, Cheap Energy, and Cheap Labor

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This was a talk I attended at the Munk Centre For International Studies at Trinity College (University of Toronto-Mar.19.2010), as part of their 2010 CIS Development Seminar Series.  The speaker, Jason W. Moore is a historian (Department of Historical Studies, Umeå University in Sweden) studying “…the relations between economic, ecological, and social change in the modern world-economy, from its origins in the long 16th century.” The discussion was based on his The Monthly Review paper.

Does the present socio-ecological impasse – captured in popular discussions as the ‘end’ of cheap food and cheap oil – represent the latest in a long history of limits and crises that have been transcended by capital, or have we arrived at an epochal turning point in the relation of capital, capitalism, and agricultural revolution? [source]

Moore first outlined the world currently organized under a capitalist world-ecology, which is fundamentally a socio-ecology or a way of knitting humans and their activities with each other and the world.  The predominant contemporary ecology has been capitalism, and operates by removing social/political constraints for the accumulation of capital.  Capitalism has developed various faces over time and today we recognize it strongly as neoliberalism.

However, unlike other previous modes of capitalism, neoliberalism is failing its predecessors.  Neoliberalism’s notorious resource/territory hoarding tactics are a sign of technological stagnation, which has traditionally been the instrumental tool to advance capitalist endeavors.  While innovation is occurring there are no major technological revolutions that promise a progressive future together with capitalism. Further, there is no one more telling system (and symptom) of capitalism’s agency than agriculture; more specifically the production of food.

For the better part of six centuries, the relation between world capitalism and agriculture has been a remarkable one. Every great wave of capitalist development, it seems, has been paved with ‘cheap’ food. Beginning in the long sixteenth century, capitalist agencies pioneered successive agricultural revolutions, yielding a series of extraordinary expansions of the food surplus. [source]

Previous advances in agriculture have moved the world into a Marxian “overproduction” organization where our machines and food processing systems have become larger than the inflow of raw resources can feed!  These advances included labor reducing technology and land productivity increases. Traditionally this accumulation has lead to lower food prices and thus lower wages, further propagating proletarianism and allowing for reallocation of capital accumulation.   Yet, today we are in a precarious position of diminishing returns.  2008 marked the “signal crisis” for neoliberalism (according to Moore), where the trend of lower food prices from the ’70s suddenly stopped and began a sharp incline.

In this wake of diminished returns there are three major obstructions to continue capitalism’s traditional trajectory of agri-abundance and capital reallocation. The first is the lack of farmable land; expanded agri-potential frontiers has left all but sub-Saharan Africa unexploited.  Even if global agriculture tapped into Africa it is projected to only solve a fraction of the world’s food allocation-hunger crisis. The second is the lack of technology; biotech has been around for a little over three decades and yet has not been able to fundamentally increase a crop-yield! Protection and pest/weed resistance is the most biotech companies are admitting to offer. Further, today’s GM companies and farmers are dealing with the ‘superweed’ effect of resistant natural weed mutations that grow faster than science can address them. The third is capital; the world has just economically collapsed and while recovery packages leave the world in limbo about the future, very little money may be left to pioneer new state-headed capitalist agri-enterprises.

…So where does this leave us?  According to Jason, capitalism may have too many current obstructions to be effective in continuing its world-ecology.  Perhaps it becomes a question of rethinking capitalism as our very engine for organization and development. Further, if we are approaching a global food crisis it is going to have to be addressed not in the poor countries who do not have capital to reallocate, but by reorganizing the money in the heartland of our current hegemonic powers.  Thus, the United States is a prime candidate for this reorganization.

Can we think of post-capitalist agriculture? What new technologies become more effective in a world without capital accumulation and the production of cheap food? Will agriculture further expand it’s spectrum of resource potential under new organization? Is it time to rethink the farm?
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Written by Matthew

April 7, 2010 at 16:32

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