Post-capitalist ecologies: energy, money and “value” in the Anthropocene

by Alf Hornborg*

To focus on the exploitative and destructive logic of the very idea of money might finally help us envisage the end of capitalism. Envisaging an end to capitalism is no doubt preferable to imagining the end of the world, even if it is more difficult. I maintain that any vision of “post-capitalism” that holds on to the idea of general-purpose money is a contradiction in terms.

This text is an abbreviated version of the keynote lecture given by Alf Hornborg at the conference Undisciplined Environments, organized by the European Network of Political Ecology (ENTITLE) in Stockholm, 20-24 March 2016.

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I would like to address a topic that is central to political ecology and that I hope will engage most of you, whether you agree with me or not: that topic is what it means to be “critical”, “radical”, or a “leftist” today, and how to integrate a fundamentally Marxian perspective on the world with concerns over global environmental degradation and climate change. I will be talking particularly about the complex relation between energy and money, and about how even eco-Marxian theories of “value” may be constrained by the conceptual hegemony of money and exchange value. I will suggest that our best hope of a post-capitalist future beyond the disastrous risks of the Anthropocene is to take a very critical look precisely at this human artifact we call money. Given the widespread consensus and voluminous deliberations on the sociopolitical and ecological ills of an abstract system referred to as “capitalism”, my main point is that money is the elephant in the room.

To most of us, even to Marxists, money is like water to fish – and yet I am convinced that the intrinsic logic of this human invention is nothing less than capitalism itself.

Money in its present form – that is, “general-purpose” money – inexorably generates not only increasing global inequalities but also the appalling degradation of the biosphere with which we are all so concerned. Instead of losing ourselves in libraries of abstract theoretical arguments on all the possible complexities of the logic of “capitalism” – whether viewed from a bourgeois or Marxian perspective – we need to take a detached, second look at the seemingly self-evident, cultural idea of money: the idea that everything is interchangeable on the same market. This idea – this artifact – inevitably prompts everyone to want to pay as little as they can for what they buy, and to charge as much as they can for what they sell. Even if it may sound like an unreasonable simplification, this is the common denominator behind slavery and climate change.

As long as we don’t question the idea of money itself, both slavery and environmental degradation will be understood as consequences of “underpayment” – whether underpayment of labor or underpayment of “ecosystem services” – but I will argue that the notion of “underpayment” only makes sense as long as we remain confined within the conceptual universe of general-purpose money. Outside of that bubble, it will be understood as a highly misleading notion.

To focus on the exploitative and destructive logic of the very idea of money might finally help us envisage the end of capitalism (envisaging an end to capitalism is no doubt preferable to imagining the end of the world, even if it is more difficult. I maintain that any vision of “post-capitalism” that holds on to the idea of general-purpose money is a contradiction in terms). To choose to scrutinize the implications of a particular human artifact, rather than immerse ourselves in theoretical deliberations on the complex structural ramifications of a specific “mode of production”, might be viewed as a concession to the radical empiricism of Actor-Network Theory, but if so, it is the only concession that a Marxist political ecology would need to grant to Actor-Network Theory.

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As I have argued in a recent article, artifacts have consequences, not agency. A truly critical social theory will need to retain a realist ontology and robust analytical distinctions between the symbolic phenomena deriving from human society, on the one hand, and the non-symbolic aspects deriving from pre-human substrates of the universe, on the other. Socalled “posthumanist” attempts to dismantle all distinctions between the social and the natural, humans and non-humans, and even subjects and objects, will not help us. To dissolve such distinctions is not to challenge power hierarchies – on the contrary, it is to abandon our capacity to do so. Maintaining such analytical distinctions – frequently rejected as “Cartesian” – has very little to do with the mind-body dualism articulated in the seventeenth century by René Descartes. Fortunately, most eco-Marxists stay away from the so-called “post-Cartesian” deliberations of the posthumanists. A coherent political-ecology understanding of the Anthropocene can only be built on the analytical distinction between the societal logic of capitalism (i.e., money), on the one hand, and the pre-symbolic and nonhuman aspects of the biosphere revealed by sciences such as thermodynamics, geochemistry, and ecology, on the other.

The recent discovery that human society is transforming planetary carbon cycles should least of all lead to a dismantling of social science. The notion of the Anthropocene risks making a social process look like the inevitable product of human biology.

It is obvious, of course, that no other species could have invented capitalism, but as Andreas Malm and I argued in a frequently cited article two years ago, we have to keep in mind that the so-called Anthropocene is the creation of a minority of the human species – in its struggle to dominate and exploit the global majority. It was to make this point that Malm in 2009 coined the currently influential concept of the Capitalocene.

Before I continue I want to propose that we should watch out for dogmatism: the kind of knee-jerk reaction to unfamiliar and undigested thoughts which relegates them to the opposite camp (as if there were always only two options: one with, and one against; one authentic, one heretical; one radical, one bourgeois, and so on). Like other movements and faiths, Marxism has suffered from processes of internal contradiction, exclusion, and fragmentation. There are thus obvious analogies between the historical development of Marxism and that of Christianity. Although Marxism and Christianity are often viewed as opposed to each other, the analogy between them is not far-fetched. Both aspire to provide a holistic worldview embodying not only analysis but also moral and political imperatives as well as visions of the future. Both are fundamentally committed to justice and to the compulsion to challenge illegitimate power and inequalities. Both are based on the revelations and subversive proposals of venerated founding figures. And both may actually belong to the same millennial tradition of ideas challenging the deification of money. The Christian socialist R.H. Tawney thus traced a genealogy from St. Paul and Thomas Aquinas to Karl Marx. Indeed, those of you who have read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ will no doubt have recognized many of the convictions and prescriptions of political ecology.

My point is this: Let us by all means remain inspired by Karl Marx’s pioneering and incisive insights about fetishism, accumulation, unequal exchange, and the economy of human time. But let us abandon the belief that to be inspired by those insights means having to be consistent with every letter conceived by a very prolific writer who died 133 years ago.

Let us not allow our careful consideration of his categories and analytical framework to descend into exegesis and dogmatism. I am sure those past 133 years have left us with something to add – and even to modify – with regards to the Marxian framework. I share with Marx the aspiration to understand the logic of the social system of which I am a part, including the cultural illusions through which it is reproduced, rather than to spend my time exploring in intricate detail the possibly refractive prism through which someone else struggled – however incisively – to grasp the operation of his own societal context 150 years ago. For me the issue is not precisely what Marx has or has not said, and whether he has or has not contradicted himself, but how parts of his fundamental theoretical framework can be applied so as to challenge the political, economic, and ecological inequalities in the world today. This is in accordance with the spirit of Marx, if not always the letter.

Political ecology initially emerged in the 1970s and 1980s among anthropologists and geographers who were dissatisfied with the functionalist assumptions of the school of cultural ecology. In the 1960s, cultural ecology had focused on case studies of traditional subsistence practices in local communities as adaptations to the non-human environment. Pioneers of political ecology such as Eric Wolf and Piers Blaikie rejected functionalism and instead emphasized the role of power inequalities and global political economy in shaping human-environmental relations. They demonstrated how the local resource flows studied by cultural ecology were connected to the asymmetric metabolic flows of the world-system (we could add that a similar tension between a consensus- and a conflict-based approach to human ecology has recently been revived in the opposition between political ecology and resilience theory. This means that, forty years later, political ecology still needs to expose functionalist assumptions in mainstream discourse on human-environmental relations).

It is a paradox that both political ecology and the cultural ecology to which it was opposed frequently refer to Marx. The founding figures of cultural ecology, such as Julian Steward and Leslie White, were heavily influenced by Marxist materialism. Although rarely viewed from a global perspective, energy flows were a central concern of cultural ecology. This concern with energy was Marxist in the crude sense of aspiring to explain cultural superstructures as reflections of material infrastructures, but for cultural ecology this approach had become a functionalist concern with adaptation to the natural environment.

Political ecology, on the other hand, while sharing the focus on the environment and natural resources, looks for explanations of human-environmental relations not in the local ecosystem, but in the global economic system which ultimately conditions local life.

The energy flows that concern political ecology are not so much those of the local ecosystem as the unequal metabolic flows within the capitalist world-system. The common concern in both schools with energy, however, leads us to ask precisely what the relation is between Marxist theory and thermodynamics.

Although Marx and Engels were not persuaded by Sergei Podolinsky’s proposal in 1880 that the theory of surplus value could be phrased in terms of energy, and although the ecoMarxists John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have consistently defended Engels’ dismissal of Podolinsky as an “energy reductionist”, there are reasons to believe that what Marx had in mind in his deliberations on the exploitation of labor was actually something quite close to the concept of energy. Even Foster and Burkett attribute a thermodynamic foundation to Marx’s theory of surplus value, and Foster has recently endorsed the “embodied energy” framework of Podolinsky’s intellectual heir Howard T. Odum. What Podolinsky recognized was that Marx’s notion that economic value derives from the material agency of labor, suggests an intuitive understanding of the role of thermodynamics in economic processes.

Energy is indeed a common denominator of the various kinds of unequal exchange and asymmetric resource transfers that have been prerequisite to different modes of capital accumulation throughout history. Conceived as material infrastructure, the accumulation, maintenance, and reproduction of capital is as contingent on a net appropriation of energy as is the survival of any biological system. Without a continuous import of energy, a machine is as inanimate as an organism that has starved to death. These are facts of physics, but they cannot be translated into economics. Energy is expended (or rather, dissipated) in any production process, but the amount of energy expended or dissipated cannot be translated into exchange value. In other words, exchange value cannot be analytically derived from the amount of energy expended.

Let me try to sort this out: I am not saying that Podolinsky or Odum were right in equating surplus value with energy, and I agree with Foster and Burkett that Engels was right to reject an energy theory of value. But Foster and Burkett’s defense of classical Marxism against Podolinsky, juxtaposed with Foster’s recent endorsement of Howard Odum, is clearly contradictory. They dismiss Podolinsky as an energy reductionist while simultaneously representing Marxian theory as highly informed by thermodynamics, even referring to what they call Marx’s “energy income and expenditure approach to surplus value.”

What, then, is finally the relation between energy and value, that is, between the biophysical and the economic? To what extent does it enhance our analysis to refer to energy as “use value”? “Value” is a concept deriving from the market, and the only metric I have encountered for measuring it is money. Energy is not a value. It is measured in Joules, not money. Marxian and ecological economics tend to describe the fundamental problem of capitalism in terms of the “underpayment” of biophysical phenomena such as labor-power, embodied energy, or ecosystem services, but this way of talking about exploitation suggests that there is a conceivable “real value” or “correct price” which would make the purchase of labor-power, energy, or ecosystem services fair and morally defensible. I don’t think this is a reasonable approach.

The pervasive inadequacy of compensation – the exploitative logic of capital – is inherent in the relation between money and thermodynamics, and a structural consequence of the systematic struggle of market actors to keep costs (whether for labor power or other kinds of energy) lower than incomes. Whether we talk about internalizing “environmental costs”, valuing “ecosystem services”, or paying “environmental debts”, we are deluded by the same fundamental incommensurability between ecology and economics. Money cannot compensate for entropy. For money to increase, resources must be destroyed. This impossible and inexorably destructive relation between economics and thermodynamics leads us to ask, rhetorically, which of them we can change: the operation of money, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

The Marxian emphasis on underpaid “use values”, not least the use value of labor-power, does suggest an emergent concern with thermodynamics, as Burkett and Foster note. I would add that the prediction of a decline in the capitalist rate of profit can be understood as an intuitive understanding of how problems of net energy (widely referred to as “EROI”) and diminishing returns increase with the expansion of technological infrastructure (what is referred to by Marxists as the “organic composition of capital”).

Along with the Promethean trust in technological progress, the most difficult conceptual constraint for nineteenth century Marxism was to analytically disconnect these concerns with the expenditure of physical energy in production processes from the all-encompassing discourse on monetary profits and economic value.

The failure to do so – to analytically delineate energy vis-à-vis money – is evident in Marx’s version of the labor theory of value. Rather than a genuinely interdisciplinary argument on the relation between energy and money, as was a hundred years later provided by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (a source of inspiration for both ecological economics and “degrowth”), parts of the theoretical edifice of traditional Marxism remain impaired by the aspiration to analytically derive monetary gain from expenditures of energy.

The struggles of eco-Marxists to adapt the labor theory of value to twenty-first-century concerns with global ecology are welcome but analytically convoluted. Eco-Marxists often suggest that nature’s energy is being underpaid, in the same way that labor is underpaid. But to conceptualize the abuse of the biosphere as a matter of exploiting the unpaid “work of nature” is difficult to distinguish from the familiar claims that “ecosystem services” are not properly evaluated, or even that “environmental externalities” are not reflected in market prices. Nature, of course, has no use for money. In trying to integrate Marxism and ecology, the eco-Marxists not only contradict classical Marxist theory – which would be fine, if they explicitly admitted it – but offer us an awkward conceptual framework for understanding environmental degradation.

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You may of course ask why I choose to pick a quarrel with eco-Marxism, rather than with mainstream economics. Well, I have been quarrelling with economists for thirty years, and I know from experience what kinds of arguments they will easily dismiss. Political ecology needs to exert itself analytically to assemble arguments that are not so easily dismissed. Contrary to Marxian value theory, we need to keep energy and money analytically distinct from each other. To produce exchange value generally means dissipating energy, as Georgescu-Roegen demonstrated, but exchange value cannot be analytically derived from the expenditure of energy.

For more than two hundred years, fossil fuels have not only been fundamental to our technologies, they have also conditioned our ways of thinking about economics – even in heterodox economics – without us realizing how much our conceptions of economic growth and technological progress have depended on the specific properties of fossil fuels. To envisage the road to a post-capitalist society as a matter of shifting energy sources and collectively controlling the money, while retaining the conventional idea of money and hoping to maintain our current condition of high-tech affluence, is delusory. It strikes me as very naïve to believe that what the world’s leaders did in Paris a few months ago was to abandon what for over two centuries has been their main source of economic and technological growth – and what continues to account for 86% of global energy use. If we seriously consider the predicament illuminated by Georgescu-Roegen, our only option for post-capitalism is degrowth. And degrowth requires that we fundamentally transform our idea of money.

As financial bubbles have grown and burst, we have recently been reminded that money is a magical artifact that can dissolve into thin air.What this should also remind us is that it is ultimately up to us, collectively, to design money in a way which will keep the biosphere inhabitable and increase global justice.

The rules that we have bestowed on our artifacts can be changed, just as in a board game. It is an illusion to believe that the logic of the artifacts and regulations which rule our lives is as inexorable as natural law. I have elsewhere argued that modern technology would not exist without what anthropologists call “general-purpose” money. Technological systems are made possible by the differences in how human time and natural space are priced in different parts of the world. It is tantamount to a displacement, by means of unequal exchange rates on the market, of work and environmental burdens to groups with less purchasing-power.

Globalized technologies are the most recent addition to the familiar historical series of exploitative social arrangements beginning with slavery and serfdom. And yet, modern technology is exactly what the so-called “ecomodernists” hope will save us from economic and ecological collapse. The recently published “Ecomodernist manifesto” is a paradigmatic illustration of fetishism. It seems completely oblivious of the fact that it is precisely the globally uneven accumulation of technology that has brought us to the brink of collapse. To this day, globalized technologies are ways of saving time and space for some, at the expense of time and space lost to others. The global asymmetric flows of resources are what make modern technologies possible. And those flows are orchestrated by money. If you cannot see the problem with money, you cannot see the problem with technology.

Whether our priority is to avoid global financial crises, increasingly obscene inequalities, or catastrophic climate change, we shall have to fundamentally redesign the operation of money. I believe this is the only possible road to a post-capitalist society. And, as I have argued elsewhere (see: forthcoming article in the Journal of Political Ecology, “How to turn an ocean liner: a proposal for voluntary degrowth by redesigning money for sustainability, justice, and resilience.”), it can be done.

So, to finally return to my opening question, what does it mean to be “critical” or “radical” today, 133 years after the death of Karl Marx? It means recognizing that what mainstream economists celebrate as “growth” is really accumulation, and what they endorse as “globalization” and “free trade” is imperialism and unequal exchange. And underlying it all, it means recognizing that our preoccupation with money, commodities, and crucially also “technological progress” can be understood as fetishism, in the sense that relations between people assume the appearance of relations between things.

3 thoughts on “Post-capitalist ecologies: energy, money and “value” in the Anthropocene

  1. What is the relationship between general purpose money and capitalist property relations? Is a capitalist property relation a condition of, and constitutive of, the operation of general purpose money? Is Hornborg proposing a shift to special purpose money regimes in which capitalist accumulation is prevented by notions of incommensurability across spheres of socially constructed values? If capitalism allows domination and accumulation by interconnected elites, in a post-capitalist society, how will new forms of domination be prevented or constrained?

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    1. General purpose money is the artifact which makes commoditization of land and labor (i.e., “capitalist property relations”) possible. A complementary currency for local use would insulate (significant parts of) our lives from the global market. The character and quality of our social and ecological relations would not be geared to financial speculation on Wall Street.

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