By José Luis Carretero Miramar / translated by Christine Lewis Carroll
Amidst the many discourses that currently flourish in alternative and antagonistic sectors and the development of an increasingly more irrational and chaotic world, we must not lose sight of those which, in one way or another, focus on energy (fossil fuel) or finance (i.e. money in its different formulations).
We will not deny the potentiality of these discourses: the reality of the ecological crisis and the energy bottleneck, as well as the brutal process of financialization of the economy which has occurred in recent decades. Fiat money, peak oil, fractional-reserve banking and the inseparable union of investment and commercial banks are central elements of our times. Derivatives are everywhere and the securitization of assets enables the exponential expansion of (speculative) bubbles; access to fossil resources is what is behind the main geopolitical wagers and at the heart of the civilisation crisis with which we are faced.
But despite the enormous interest these approaches arouse, we consider the real reason for their existence disappears on occasions from the forefront, analysis and possible alternatives. We are referring to human exploitation.
We wish to be understood correctly: we are not saying unlimited growth lacks potentiality or importance at the present time, that social movements’ experimentation with local currencies or cryptocurrency is not useful or opportune. What we are saying is that sustainable degrowth is in no way appropriate, and despite general acceptance in many environments, within the framework of capital accumulation and that a form of money which ends up serving commercial speculation in the context of human exploitation is equally inappropriate.
In many of the discourses to which we refer, ecological collapse or financial drift end up becoming an implacable fact of reality that cannot objectively be altered by human action. This means that preparing for collapse covers every element of the way we live now and cannot maintain in the future because, for some, a life of abundance is the only way to live, a life of commercial toys. Human, essential and ahistorical necessities, it would seem, are solved by the current mode of production; in another non-capitalist and non-industrialised society we would experiment great shortage. But what is most worrying is when some sectors refer to adapting peak fossil fuel from the perspective of adjustments made by all without paying attention to underlying class inequality and the global architecture of a profoundly complex system.
Being unable to imagine any other life but our own we are imbued with the impossibility of maintaining it instead of seizing the opportunity to exceed it by achieving a more habitable society where sustainability is based precisely on the emancipation of workers from the shackles of ever-growing capital accumulation and the past of oppression.
In his book “Nuestro Marx”, Néstor Kohan defines fetishism as central to the analysis of capital:
“Fetishism consists of a social and historical process by which it is accepted that there is something outside (history) not linked to the inside (of history). Fetishism implies a radical dualism, a categorical split between the object and the subject. There would be a radically external object (economic categories and laws) with no link to the social subjects and their reciprocal relationships (those of struggle, power and confrontation, i.e. relationships imbued, according to Marxist historical theory, with class struggle).”
In this process, where the fetish becomes autonomous from its creator:
“Objects become animate, embodied and are transformed into subjects. At the same time, relationships between human beings, the real subjects, acquire autonomy and independence with respect to them and become things (…) Subjects become objects and objects become subjects.”
But this process of personification of the object and reification of the subject is not confined to some unfathomable metaphysical fold inside the heart of man nor does it respond to any lost essence. The explanation is strictly social and historical.
This is the key to understanding the transformative insufficiency of certain discourses which place material realities, such as money or energy commodities, where social subjects should be, whilst the subjects that produce commodities are completely reified and denied substantialism. Energy or money become animate, pregnant and suddenly possess soul and movement, whilst real people are ahistorical objects unable to have needs, reactions or aspirations beyond the present ones, associated as they are to the chains of capital. Money is born, transformed, grows and is reproduced, whilst the human beings that produce it as the equivalent of all commodities are inalterable, toys of the essential economic forces to which they can only adapt.
Exploitation disappears from the discourse to imagine capitalist degrowth (human emancipation is not possible but economic forces can be adapted to less energy consumption) or a type of money which could free humanity without affecting the exploitative relationship between capital and labour.
The reality of these discourses, which has nothing to do with the anti-capitalist environmentalism recommended by Carlos Taibo or with the monetary experimentation associated to social movements and present in social markets or comprehensive cooperatives, encourages the readjustments necessary to save capital from its ecological and financial contradictions, in an attempt to convince entire populations and specifically workers that this is not the time for demands but for all to contribute to the degraded survival of the society we know.
So the endless debates concerning the minimum energy return on investment necessary to sustain a society often ignore that our society is not the only viable one, nor is the basic process of surplus value creation (which significantly influences the range of energetic requirements in a system based on the savage competition between individuals and the exploitation of some by others where the grower wins) the only plausible one. If capitalism lingers, the alternative is chaotic collapse.
The core of our social world does not reside in the lack of the commodity ‘energy’ or in the exponential reproduction of the commodity ‘money’ via credit and securitization, however important these are. The real problem, the fundamental dynamics which has caused these processes is alienated labour, which requires such irrational quantities of energy and monetary tools for its reproduction. And all this will persist as long as the market requires the commodity ‘workforce’, in other words waged labour.
This brings to the forefront the radical importance of something often masked by most discourses: class struggle. In Kohan’s words: “Fetishism renews itself, it does not end, it becomes an ongoing and reproductive process (…). All these processes are subject to dispute, cut and thrust, rejection and a relationship of power and force between social classes which is periodically and increasingly updated. Capital wages daily combat and confrontation to reproduce and transform living labour into something dead and crystallised, solid and petrified, where human relationships are objectified and human needs become commercial demands (of value and money).”
It is in the framework of this confrontation that human needs are inevitably understood in certain discourses as the obligation to accumulate commodities instead of a full, rich and creative life. It is here where many pseudo-environmentalist discourses (far from a democratic debate over the use of available energy from a materialistic point of view, bringing to the forefront the very existence of alienated labour) present the commodity ‘energy’ as something alive that could die and the human needs of commercial society as something objectified (directing the debate towards the need of us all to reduce consumption).
The success in our media of these supposedly new and liberating discourses is based on the disruptive nature of anti-systemic thought, brought about by the brutal cultural defeat which occurred following 1968 and the abandonment of the class debate. If the working class no longer exists, then neither does exploitation, despite the multiple forms of oppression, nor is there a horizon of emancipation for waged labour which is still stubbornly (and despite all the real and objective transformations of recent decades) at the core of the lives of the majority of the global population. This means we can only rethink our social status from the perspective of consumer units, all equally responsible for the chaotic drift and obliged, this time unequally, to suffer alienated work in ever increasing misery (not only in terms of access to material commodities).
The unmasking of the fetishist process which makes us vulnerable to these theses of sustainable capitalism and healthy financialization requires us to recover the idea that the abolition of salary and collective self-management of the economic infrastructure are the only way to recover the human needs capital has abandoned; this would drive away the ghost of the great collapse. It is only from the perspective of collective and democratic ownership of the means of production and participative processes of social decision-making that another kind of human being can emerge; one that is capable of being an active and conscious subject and treating his or her work as an object, rationalising production to serve human needs removed from the world of commodities and surplus value, namely those of caring, affinity, affectivity, culture and play.
But to reach this point, Néstor Kohan reminds us: “The fight and confrontation with the enemy, political initiative and the support of our potential allies is never generated automatically without subjective intervention and political consciousness. The latter presupposes a whole historical, concentrated experience and the recovery of tradition accumulated from previous generations (regardless of whether these were successful or not in their struggle).”
The constructive processes of political consciousness and re-appropriation (complex but real) of previous revolutionary tradition are yet to occur in our country.
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