Tag Archives: crisis

The Key Question About The Crisis of Our Times

From Kate Soper’s review of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Had it had to pay for the bounty of nature or any of its debts to the labour of animals, slaves, the reproductive and domestic work of women, and so on, [capitalism] could never have existed. ‘The great secret and the great accomplishment of capitalism’, claims Moore, ‘has been to not pay its bills.’ Historical capitalism, moreover, has been able to resolve its recurrent crises until now only because of its continued success in ripping off what it should have been paying for, only because it has always managed to extend its zone of appropriation faster than it zone of exploitation – to overcome exhausted means or ‘natural limits’ to further capitalization, by engineering, with the help of science, technology and conducive cultural-symbolic forces, ever new means of restoring cut-price supplies of food, energy, labour and materials. Cartesian talk of Nature’s wreaking revenge on Humanity at some indefinite point in the future overlooks the often spectacular ways in which capitalism has overcome its socio-economic obstacles to growth. Particularly impressive in this respect has been its capacity to harness new knowledges in the service of economic expansion – as, for example, in the critical use made of cartography in the seventeenth century, or of time measurement, and other quantifying systems. Extensive historical illustration of all these devices and accumulation strategies is provided in the various sections of Moore’s book covering the colonizations of capitalism over the centuries, the territories thereby opened up for fresh labour exploitation, and the frontiers marked out for acquisition of pivotal resources at key historical moments (sugar, corn, silver, iron, oil, etc.).

But if apocalyptic formulation of nature’s limits is mistaken, Moore does also accept that capitalism may well now be running into the buffers, or, in others words, running out of the sources of the Four Cheaps [i.e., food, energy, labor power, and raw materials], and into a situation in which overcapitalization is left with too few means of investment and further accumulation. The problem here, he suggests, is a longue durée tendency for the rate of accumulation to decline as the mass of capitalized nature rises. In the process, accumulation becomes more wasteful due to increased energy inefficiency and the toxicity of its by-products; the contradiction between the time of capitalism (always seeking to short-cut that of environmental renewal) and the time of natural reproduction is made more acute; the eco-surplus declines, and capital has nowhere else to go other than recurrent waves of financialization. The key question, then, to which Moore continually returns without any clear answer, is whether the crisis of our times is epochal or developmental; whether, against the odds, new sources of accumulation will be located, or whether the combination of physical depletion, climate change, stymied investment opportunities and new anti-systemic movements now indicate a terminal decline.

Is This A Serious Conversation?

Is this a serious conversation? Is he discussing this question in earnest and giving you second-personal authority, or is he simply going to decide what to believe and do it unilaterally? If the latter, then not only will there be nothing reciprocal about his choice, but also there will be nothing genuinely reciprocal about the conversation; it will not be serious. He will have no particular need to determine what you are going to do, say, by listening carefully, because his choice will be unilateral. If he is an egoistic non-cooperator, he will not cooperate whatever you say or do. He has nothing at stake in the conversation and need give you no authority in it, either to answer the theoretical question of what (to believe) you will do, or to answer the practical question of what to do himself. No genuine co-deliberation, either theoretical or practical, will occur.

I found my way back to this discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Darwall’s Second Person Standpoint after reading this morning that a group of leading NGOs had walked out of the Warsaw climate talks. “Talks like these amount to nothing if countries refuse to come to them and negotiate in good faith or worse, try to drag the process backwards,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Sam Smith. There are complaints that corporate sponsors compromised and undermined the talks from the get-go. But the conversation about what to do — and who should do what — was already at an impasse. There were a few fine speeches, but the time for fine speeches has long ago passed.

Some people — Suzanne Goldberg calls them “experts familiar… with the politics of climate change” in The Guardian today — seem to think that new research by Richard Heede will help “break the deadlock.” This seems like the sort of thing only experts and journalists who interview them can believe: that a piece of research is what’s needed to make an unserious conversation serious.

As The Guardian headline has it, Heede has identified ninety companies that have “caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions” since the start of the industrial era. His list includes state-run companies and coal producers from around the world as well as big oil companies from the developed world. The idea, or at least the hope, is that Heede’s comprehensive, historical accounting of fossil-fuel producers will change the dynamics of the conversation, which has tended to pit developed against emerging economies, rich countries against poor, and so on.

It’s hard for me to imagine that Heede’s findings will really bring about anything like what Darwall calls “genuine co-deliberation” or translate to new cooperation. These talks are a game of dodge ball.

Al Gore is quoted here as saying that Heede’s list places “a clear obligation” on companies “historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere.” But what exactly does that obligation entail? “To be part of the solution,” says Gore. And how are these companies to be held to that obligation? Gore does not say; but without binding agreements and a whole new set of rules I am not sure we will get anything but the usual greenwashing rhetoric, more corporate funded climate denial and more inaction.

And even if we somehow do manage to hold fossil-fuel producing companies historically responsible, or (as Michael Mann suggests) fingerprint the sources of future emissions, we will need to hold ourselves and all fossil-fuel consumers responsible as well. That’s where the conversation gets really serious — when we start talking about historical responsibility as shared responsibility. Are we ready to start enumerating the obligations we all have on this score and figuring out how we are going to meet them? It seems very few people in Warsaw or anywhere this week really want to have that conversation.

Trending Towards The Gray

I’m watching Procter & Gamble stock today, looking for some reaction on the trading floor to the announcement that Robert McDonald will succeed A. G. Lafley as CEO. The market did not exactly raise a huzzah or hurrah at the news yesterday, which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the AP wire. P&G finished slightly down. It was a gray day.

Maybe traders and investors are waiting for today’s official announcement before reacting, but when have you known Wall Street to wait? Maybe McDonald just isn’t seen as an inspired or inspiring choice; but I refuse to believe that. After 29 years at P&G, McDonald now serves as Chief Operating Officer of the sprawling consumer products giant. He has an impressive military background (West Point, 82nd Airborne), and a degree in Engineering. He is a logistics man. In his tenure as COO, McDonald focused on making P&G’s manufacturing and transportation network more efficient. He implemented a monitoring system to track trucks and reduce empty truck miles. And he made efforts to move production to emerging markets – another push for virtuous efficiency (or cheaper labor, depending on your perspective and your politics).

These are not the actions of an empty suit. McDonald is clearly someone with a deep and hard-earned knowledge of how P&G works and the expectation is he will make a concerted effort to institute new discipline across the company. No small task, given P & G’s size, breadth and depth: the company makes everything from my Braun coffee-grinder to dish soap, Gillette razors, potato chips, AA batteries and cosmetics; even the diapers your child is soiling right now are probably made by P&G. Imagine directing all that traffic, or simply trying to bring the whole thing into focus. The company claims people around the world use its products three billion times a day. By my reckoning, that’s about 35,000 uses every second of every day.

That makes the collective shrug yesterday over McDonald’s appointment all the more puzzling. Or maybe that shrug was the intended effect. P&G certainly could have made a big splash if it wanted to, by choosing Susan Arnold over McDonald. Arnold was often mentioned as a likely successor to Lafley until she left P & G in March of 2009 (motivated, no doubt, by the fact that she’d been passed over. The succession process had been two years in the works; the writing must have been on the wall sometime in 2008). Arnold was a P&G superstar. She started out selling dish soap (a brand assistant), and gained the highest rank of any woman in P & G’s 168-year history. But wait, there’s more: she’s openly gay, according to her profile on Wikipedia. (These are the wages of success: to have one’s sexual preferences detailed on Wikipedia.) Think Carly Fiorina meets Ellen DeGeneres. Think of the cultural capital the company would have reaped: over-the-top praise from big media outlets, eager to portray themselves as socially progressive; the lashing and futile threats of boycotts from the Religious Right. At the very least, it would have been a good day at the circus.

There may be a glass ceiling at P&G, but Arnold came pretty close to shattering it. There’s no questioning her competence, and it’s likely she was passed over not because of some institutionalized sexism or homophobia, but because of the business she was in. She came up through the beauty and cosmetics line (look for institutional sexism there, if you must), a business that flourished under Lafley; but there is a suspicion that in hard times, Cover Girl and Pantene won’t do as well as some of the more essential consumer items. Some investors had begun to question whether the acquisition of Gillette had made the company unwieldy, too big to succeed. The future of the company doesn’t lie in Arnold’s bailiwick. So it might have been as simple as that. The McDonald appointment suggests a new sobriety about the marketplace, a shift in focus or a correction of the Lafley strategy. (Since Lafley will stay on as Chairman, it’s a subtle suggestion, at best.)

But doesn’t the P&G succession story also suggest something larger and more significant? Something about the mood and tone of the country right now? I’m tempted to see in McDonald’s ascent something like the start of a trend — away from the superstar CEO, and towards the nuts and bolts operations guy. Less sizzle, more logistics. A similar restraint seems to have played into the thinking behind the choice of Fritz Henderson to lead GM through its dark days and into Chapter 11. There are doubtless other examples.

It’s sometimes said that the operations-minded are too immersed in the details to see the big picture; but sobriety, details and logistics might be exactly what we’re looking for after the housing bust, the financial crisis, the Madoff affair, the private jets, all the CNBC hype and John Thain’s $1,400 wastebasket. And it may be what we’re looking for, more broadly, in leaders: think of it as a trend toward the gray, more Ike, less Dubya. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could never have conceived, let alone plan D-Day; Eisenhower would never have invaded Iraq without a postwar plan. Obama is a rock star, to be sure. But many like him for his sobriety and evenness of temperament; he is unflappable, and he likes to make careful distinctions and discuss things coolly, so much so that before the elections some right-leaning pundits were praising his “conservative” instincts. (That’s over.)

Remember when Ronald Reagan famously told us it was morning in America again? Now, it seems, we’re just happy to hear that it’s a gray day and that nothing too out of the ordinary is happening.

Reckoning on a Riot

Yesterday’s New York Times Week in Review section found sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondering why we are not out in the streets, rioting for bread.

You can tell it’s a prospect that gives him a little thrill – or a touch of academic brain fever. Venkatesh’s writing rises above social-scientific banalities only when he’s describing the complete breakdown of social order.

He is sure that if we all stop blogging and texting, twittering and talking on cell phones, and if we can all get over the shame we all feel over the massive credit card debt we all carry — no, really, this seems to be his argument — we will all get in touch with our true feelings again, or at least with the righteous anger we ought to be feeling over AIG bonuses and Chrysler’s nosedive and John Thain’s interior decorating budget; and in the light of that new day we will all rise up and take to the streets.

Not to worry, of course: Professor Venkatesh assures us that there won’t be angry, unruly mobs in the streets bent on mayhem. Why would there be? We will all turn out for a riot, but stay just for good conversation with our fellow citizens, kind of a democratic carnival or street fair, or a big town hall, in which, I guess, unemployed bankers, sinecured academics, Toledo plumbers and everybody else will come to approve a new program of social justice.

Maybe I’ve been living in New York City too long, but I prefer to avoid crowds when I can, especially angry crowds, and I don’t expect people driven to the street by anger suddenly to turn all warm, mushy and benevolent at the sight of fellow sufferers or the prospect of a conversation. Maybe we would all be moved by pity and compassion and realize a sense of shared purpose if we only could come face to face, and acknowledge our pain. But isn’t it just as likely — more likely — that the day of reckoning so eagerly anticipated by Professor Venkatesh wouldn’t turn out the way he expects?

What the world needs now may be love sweet love; but there will be no easy resolution to the political and social conflicts this economic crisis might generate. Democratic deliberation is above all a habit, one we are out of; concerns about the thing we hold in common — the res publica — have given way, for now, to worries over the losing everything we have, or own. So it is with some regret that I would inform Professor Venkatesh — pace Rodney King — that we probably can’t all just get along; and, what’s more, we probably won’t.