In Transition and Peak Oil circles, lately the talk has included more and more reflection on economics and the likely end of the growth our economic system depends upon. The reasons for this increase in discourse are fairly apparent. Although Martensen, Heinberg, Kunstler, and McKibben were talking about economics long before the recent “crash,” their ideas have been especially topical in the last few years. We have also been fortunate to hear the voices of more professional economists, finally wandering away from the monetarist, pro-growth, finance-bedazzled herd, economists such as Jeff Rubin, Nicole Foss, and Steve Keen, who I was lucky to hear at the Local Futures conference in Michigan last week.
From them, and others, I have received a crash course in economics and finance 101. Although this new cohort of Peak Oil economists all take a slightly different approach to our current economic situation, they share in common the view that the international and global financial system are unsustainable, that we have been living off the vapours of debt, virtual money, and the ponzi schemes whose sytematic global swindle have reached their terminal velocity. I have learned with increasing detail, the way in which a debt-based financial system demands growth, and will, with its chorus of financial advisors and evangelical marketers, demand growth at the expense of all else.
All this abstract financial derivation and structural delinquence, we are told, will be aggravated by both demographics and peak oil, and the volatile ecological impacts of climate change. But in all the recent economic discussions I have heard within the context of peak oil or sustainability, the focus has been primarily on the system of finance and banks. Part of this focus can be explained by the domination of finance within our economic system, the way things seem to rise and fall with the stock-market and a dizzying array of securities, derivatives, and the other progeny of the foul houses of algorithmic gambling. Indeed the world of finance and money has come to dominate the economic consciousness of our age despite, or perhaps because, the way that it has become more and more a world unto itself, detached from the making of things and goods that the system of capital was invented to support and enable.
There is a sense, then, that because of its dominance, the world of high finance needs to be deconstructed and dismantled, or at least understood, from the inside, using its terms and concepts against themselves. In principle, and if submitted to the measure that our economics have not, I would agree that the focus on the finance component of industrial and the poorly conceived “post-industrial” economy rightly demands significant attention. But I also think that a critique from the inside will, sometimes, sooner abandon itself in the wasted rubble of the dismantled consciousness than search for a new vocabulary or poetics of work and production.
You needn’t go further than CNBC or even NPR’s hourly market updates to see that our culture fetishizes the market and the finance, as Marx would say. And I’m wondering if critics of our speculative debt-based economy do not themselves participate in this fetishization, as well. At the Local Futures conference, and after an earlier presentation by Nicole Foss to Transition Milwaukee, I tried in my questions to grasp at the world that wasn’t being discussed. How does Peak Oil fit into this analysis of a system that is, of its own accord, doomed? What are we not seeing when we talk endlessly about money and banks but never about labor and production? Are there no “things” in this world being analyzed? What of the new cool ranch TVs and updated Mc-I Pods? What of that new Mercedes that parks itself, the Lexus with eyes in the back of its head? What, dammit, of food and farming, the building of houses, the production of tools? Professor Keen helped me clarify some of my concerns by reminding me of the Marxian distinction between use value and exchange value that I was grasping at, but could not recall. But nevertheless as he continued on his way his analysis remained in the world only of exchange value.
So I decided that all this Economics 101 that I was lucky to be learning, was nevertheless not the place at which we should be starting our discussion. I think we all need to go back a semester to Econ 095. Here we would be reminded of this, the most basic fact of economics: that all wealth, luxury, and comfort, is the product of one condition, and one condition alone. It is the product of any productive capacity left over after we have fed, housed, and clothed ourselves. The wealth of a society can be judged simply by the percentage of its available or manifested labor necessary to grow and raise food and provide shelter. In modern industrial society, only a fraction of our output is needed to provide these at a basic level. The rest can be dedicated to entertainment, novelties, comfort, and, perhaps most importantly, the limitless world of symbolic supremacy and a hegemonic fantasy world we sometimes refer to as “culture.”
The great tragedy of our current situation, no doubt, is that we have adopted a system in which the only way everyone (and not really everyone) can allegedly be fed and clothed in the most rudimentary manner is if the machines of luxury production are given the means to move and whiz and wheel unencumbered. Otherwise the system chokes up. If new I-Pods are left unpurchased, the danger is not, of course a world with less paraphernalia of pointless distraction, but that more of our fellows will find themselves without house or home.
Despite the increasingly abstract and alienated nature of the world of exchange, its ability to wreak havoc on basic survival has only increased. It is therefore important to understand it, to work to find a way of extracting ourselves from it with minimal damage and disruption. But our imagination will be stunted and we won’t get much further if we don’t begin to talk about labor and production, about goods and necessities, about the value of things whose value is their usefulness.
It is worth reminding ourselves, and repeating daily to all our fellow citizens who need to see not only the rug that is being pulled out from beneath them, but the nature of the floor beneath, that an operational financial system may, in the industrial age, be a necessary condition of economic health (whatever that means), but it is not a sufficient one. The financial system, with its strange needs for “liquidity,” the right “velocity of money,” an appropriate level change in the change of “aggregate demand” or whatever else I’m half-remembering from recent studies, has the power, if it fails to function, leave us poor, starving and naked. But the financial system does not, itself, have the ability to produce, to keep us fed and clothed, with a fair distribution of all the stuff we really need.
While I learned this precisely from Peak Oil economists, or Peak Oilers such as Heinberg who remind us of the energy inputs of an industrial economy, in my recent Peak Oil 101 there has been a deflationary decrease in the net supply of this sort of reminder. While we learn about the financial system and its possible impeding crash, let us not forget that it reached its inhuman heights only in an age of fossil fuels. In short, it is a product, at some point, of labor–of the combination of energy, raw materials, and human power or imagination or engineering. With the terminal decline of fossil fuels it is likely that we will be left only, as the substance and the symbols of the economy, with human power and creativity, and a diminishing supply of raw materials and energy. The virtual (and only virtual) perpetual-motion machine of a finance and debt based economics is likely not to exist in its current form.
If we are to live in an age where there will be less to go around, we will be hard-pressed to make sure everyone (or even as many, far too few, as get it now) gets what they need. It may be a blessing that the industrial finance system, with its high-octane inequality, will not be there comanding our attention with its unreasonable demands and needs as we divide amongst ourselves our increasingly small shares. But we still need to start with utmost urgency a quest for a new way of talking about work and labor and goods and services, so that we can also find a new way of organizing it. Perhaps, because of the way the world has worn on that word, it is time, now, to discuss these, the things of life, without the word, “economics.”