Ellen Meiskins Wood, in her essay “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism” discussed the vulnerability to commodification as “exposure” to the capitalist market. Strong organic communities, and high levels of what Polanyi caslled embeddedness, along with plain self-sufficiency in the basics — food, water, shelter — are barriers against this “exposure. That is why the capitalist state, not itself an accumulator of capital, but the facilitator for the system as a whole, has — contrary to the libertarian fantasies about “free” markets — employed coercion to strip away those barriers and increase market exposure (and thereby vulnerability to commodification). The most famous case is Enclosure, but the instances are actualy too numerous to count.
Capitalism is carcinomic. It has no imperative above growth. So when anything exsits outside of its market, and when the limits to accumulation are encountered within its present span, it has to tear open new people, places, and things for commodification.
Embeddedness refers to the level at which economic activity is embedded in other social and cultural structures. A neighborhood market owned by local people, and worked by a family, for example, is more embedded than a supermarket chain-store.
Disembedding and market exposure go hand in hand. They are intimately related to abstraction and generalization… and to what Steve referred to in an earlier post as “disenchantment.”
Marx alluded to the process of abstraction in Capital, when he described the dual character of the commodity. On the one hand, a commodity has a use. This pencil in front of me is useful, because I can write with it. That is MY use for it, my motivation for having it. But for BIC, Incorporated, this pencil’s utility for me is a means to a higher end. They haven’t the least intention of writing with it, and once I’ve bought it, they could care less whether I lose it.. in fact, that might be a good thing, because I’ll buy another more quickly. BIC makes the pencil in order to transform an investment of money into more money. So BIC pencils and BIC pens and BIC cigarette lighters are all qualitatively different in their uses, but they share another character that abstracts them… that makes them all the same, that overcomes their specificity. They are comodities… a thing produced for the purpose of turning money into more money.
Speaking of abstractions, money is a very effective abstractor… a leveller that dissolves specificity into “the market.” When you think about it, in a highly embedded economy, you can do what my sister once did. She lived in a smallish community in Arkansas, and she would clean houses, sometimes for barter. If she had dental work to be done, she would clean the dentist’s house so many times in exchange for the dental work. Use value for use value. But you have to know the people, personally, in order to do this. She could never have gone into another community, or into a big dental office controlled by an HMO, and tried the same thing. She would have to have money… and therefore she would have a higher degree of exposure to the market and the subjugation of people to its logic.
Money is a GENERAL, ABSTRACT claim on the labor of others, mediated through the market. it is not specific; it is universal. Higher leveles of universality equal higher levels of abstraction. General purpose money assigns a single qualitative unit of value to everything… not a use-value, because use-values are specific and not interchangeable. House cleaning and dental work are not the same. But a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. Ten dollars is just a quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) increase of the same abstract form. It’s a number standing for all things real… that overcomes specificity. This is how it disembeds.
We are forced, with increased exposure to the market, to focus our life activity more and more on the acquisition of money in order to get by. This obligatory practice of seeking money, then, creates a mind-set accustomed to seeing money as a primary goal, and so we are mentally conformed to the market over time. We begin to think of money as concrete and not abstract, and this error — born of necessary practice once we are exposed to the market — becomes a habit of thought… and so begins to seem natural. We are conditioned by our dependence on and subordination (exposure) to the market.
Alf Hornborg, writing in The Power of the Machine, remarks onthe way in which general purpose money disembeds and dissolves the specificity of community into the abstraction of them market, where individual human beings are then cut adrift in a highly alienating, dog-eat-dog system of competitive survival… which leads to “superficiality,” and a “disenchantment with nature (which is thus reduced along with one’s whole environment, to an instrumentality… something seen for how it facilitates the prime directive to get money).
“In conditioning people to superficiality… capitalism also conditions them to disenchantment with nature. The abandonment of essence in the way we apporach words and identities is paralleledin the way we approach the non-human environment… it is also paralleled — perhaps paradigmatically so — in the way we approach money. Consciousness of the contructed nature of social reality [de-naturalization -SG] generates fear of immanent collapse [an historically male preoccupation with controlling chaos -SG], whether of identities, meanings, or stock markets… There is thus a fundamental connection between the ‘anything goes’ of New Age spirituality and the final abandonment of the Bretton Woods gold standard.
“To understand these processes, we need to focus on disembedding, decontextualizing forces that are inherent in modernity and are the common denominator of markets, universalizing science, and the ecologically alienated individual. There is a fundamental, ‘modern’ tendency toward abstraction in the economy, discourse, and personhood, which encourages superficiality in relation to space and paves the way for envornmental destruction… the dissolution [what a 'solvent' like general purpose money does -SG] of cultural meaning and the dismantling of ecosystems are two aspects of a single process.
“The concept of ‘disembedding,’ in signifying the alienation of persons. objects, or concepts from the contexts from which they have previously derived their meaning, is a thoroughly semiotic concept. It was applied by Karl Polanyi to the process whereby capitalist economic institutions achieved their own, autonomous logic vis-a-vis other dimensions of modern society…”
Later, Hornborg points out:
“A peculiar, semiotic conundrum posed by money is that it represents a code withonly one sign. it is like imagining a language with one phoneme, an alphabet with one letter, or a DNA molecule withonly one kind of nucleotide. ASs such, it is a sign with a completely arbitrary referent, lacking even a conventional relation to any specific thing that it sginfies. Nothing meaningful can be expressed with it because meaning emerges in contrasts, or in differences between what something stands for or what it doesn’t stand for. In fact, if there were two kinds ofmoney instead of one, it would make all the difference in the world.”
Not surprisingly, last year Cuba implemented a multiple currency policy to reduce its exposure to the international market, which employs the US dollar as a universal currency. Cuba is re-embedding in its monetary policy, just as it is in agriculture.
Shifting gears now, to recapture the earlier post called Vague Outlines (this is just its continuation), I wrote about the apparent mismatch between social conditions and the organizatonal methods and models of resistance politics. One sharp commenter noted that Hezbollah, fighting Israel now in South Lebanon, seemed to be employing some of the principles of tactical agility that were discussed in the earlier post as an alternative to overarching strategies.
While I share the specific critiques of others aimed at Hezbollah, it must be noted that the other thing that Hezbollah has accomplished, which has provided the basis for their popular support, is that they have filled the social voids created by the general trend (of capitalism) to abandon public responsibilities in order to shift resources to new fields of capital accumulation and state practice in support of it.
In the larger scope of history, capitalism has passed its global anabolic phase and entered a decidedly catabolic stage in advance of its collapse. In order to divert the resources of both capital and the state into emergency processes elsewhere, as capital accumulation itself runs into both is material and social limits, the system has abandoned social spaces (like New Orleans or South Lebanon) where the return on investment possibilities of social infrastructure no longer exist. Hezbollah has wisely filled those voids with hospitals, day-care centers, schools, security, etc. In New Orelans, we noted that Common Ground Collective was already in the process (when we arrived there on the Veterans and Survivors March earlier this year) of reconstructing a school with no sanction or assistance from the government, and re-opening it… saying, “We can probably do this better than they did.”
While this may or may not pan out over time is not predictable, and there is little doubt that specualtors and gentrifiers are already hatching nasty little plots with the government to “accumulate through dispossession” in the wreckage of New Orleans, the germ of a fresh model for organizing a politics of resistance is there.
In Robert Bielâ€™s â€œThe New Imperialism – Crisis and Contradictions in North/South Relations,â€ he writes about how the system is now divesting of so many social responsibilities that grassroots efforts are being forced to fill the gaps.
That describes the CGC effort in Gulf Coast. But with the provision of services in those realms abandoned by the state, there is an opportunity to do more than merely respond to an emergency.
It is in those activities that are not so thoroughly integrated into the conventional grids (EXPOSED) that we can gain those (Hezbollah-like) community footholds of political power. There are alternative cultures being built in New Orleans and elsewhere right now within the volunteer reconstruction efforts.
Service provision becomes community-building. The fight to defend the community, and to prevent its co-optation, gives the community a political characterâ€¦ because politics is the struggle for the acquisition and preservation of power.
The crisis-ridden world system we now see is not escaping from its own crises, it is exporting those crises to the less powerful. It is in the very genetic code of capital accumulation to articulate these crises. So in the sum of things, the dominant class will not push back these crises â€” for which the abandonment of social responsibility is symptomatic â€” but merely shift the increasing number and intensity of crises around. We have to begin to see this as an opportunity to occupy and establish popular democratic power within those voids as the basis for mounting a struggle for the total transformation of society.
In dealing with the emergent nature of social crisis and ruling class responses to it, we need the capacity to do at least four things: (1) construct community and social infrastructure within abandoned space, (2) create vortices of attraction for new intiatives, (3) create political structures to defend our intiatives, and (4) develop and disseminate means to reduce market exposure for ourselves and others. On the last point, it has to be noted with regard to a potentially reactionary metropolitan middle-class, the degree to which we can convince and assist this class to begin a gradual withdrawal from the market grid (with food, water, and energy self-sufficiency), the greater that class’ innoculation from the bagaries of crisis and the temptation to embrace a politics of reaction. If unity of goals and freedom of action are the watchwords (an this is only hypothetical… a proposal of sorts), then one goal must be re-localization. (Re-embedding? Re-specifying? De-exposing?)
This is where the question of self-organization comes to the fore. People like Hayek and Karl Polanyi’s capitalist brother, Michael, saw self-organization as a feature of the “free” market, but in fact, the basis of a free market is property, which is a political phenomenon… that is, entitlement through force. The capitalist market, based as it is on money-prime accumulation, or “growth,” is NOT self-0rganization except for capital-ISTS. Everyone else is forcibly “exposed.”
According to wiki, “Self-organization is a process in which the internal organization of a system, normally an open system, increases in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. Self-organizing systems typically (though not always) display emergent properties.”
This does not mean merely spontaneity. The BASIS for this ‘unguided” complexity has to be established, and in politica terms, this means creating that basis involves a combination of intentionality, intuition, and serendipity… the willingness to try out hunches, and then to observe these “trys” for indications of self-organization. Self-organizing social formations have more durability, based on a combination of internally-generated dynamics, than organization that are guided by a set of static “principles” or doctrines.
The march experience in the Gulf Coast, as has been noted elsewhere here, established the basis for a kind of self-organization, but it was not the one we expected, and was, in fact, in some ways indicative of something stronger and more reproducable… a community of temprament that combined with a political community.
I’ll leave this with two evocative stories, meant more to suggest than declare.
Story One: When I was teaching at West Point, a student who was lamenting the lack of an adequately martial spirit (we can talk about the moral apsects of this in a different context), he said, “This school is trying to recruit smart peoiple and make them into fighters. We should be recruting fighters and making them into smart people.”
Story Two: When I was in 7th Special Forces, the Army built us a keen new compound at Fort Bragg. But within weeks of occupying the compound, a probem developed with people constantly messing up the lawns by walking over the grass. They weren’t using the sidedwalks. i was talking to my battalion commander one day, when he said, “You know… we ought to build these places first, without the sidewalks, then let people use them for a while. When we see where the trails develop, THEN we would know where to build the sidewalks.”