Saturday, April 26, 2014

1399. Becoming the World Top Oil Producer: in North America Challenges Remain

By Clifford Krauss, The New York Times, April 21, 2014

At a time when Russia is saber-rattling and the Middle East is in turmoil, a welcome geopolitical trifecta could be in the making. The United States is poised to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer. Canada’s oil sands have vaulted the country to energy superpower status. Mexico is embarking on a historic constitutional energy overhaul that its president promises will propel the country’s economy.
And there is no shortage of cheerleaders. “The North American production outlook is incredibly bright,” said Jason Bordoff, a former senior energy adviser in President Obama’s White House. “Everything we see on the ground suggests reasons to be
But as bright as the future may appear, energy executives and other experts say it is time for a reality check before declaring energy independence for the United States and its continent. Gushing oil and gas give North America hopes of becoming what some call “Saudi America,” but fossil fuels development is always contentious for its environmental costs. The Keystone XL pipeline, intended to connect Canada’s oil sands to American refineries, has been tangled in politics and regulatory concerns for years. Grass-roots environmental movements have stopped natural gas drilling in New York State and Quebec, and they threaten the expansion of oil company operations, pipelines and port terminals in the Western United States and Canada.
Bigger challenges face Mexico, still a fading producer for United States demand. Even as Mexico is pressing ahead with constitutional changes that promise to open exploration and production to international oil companies for the first time since the 1930s, the fine print of the legislation to carry this out is still in doubt, while raging drug violence continues to worry investors.
Perhaps most important, the economics of oil and natural gas extraction on the continent are challenging: Deepwater Gulf of Mexico oil drilling, oil sands extraction and shale drilling are all expensive and require high petroleum prices that are far from assured. Most of the easy-to-drill oil is gone. But should North America produce too much oil too quickly, and exports surge from Iraq (which is already happening) and Iran (should talks with the West over its nuclear program succeed), global oil prices could soften considerably.
There is also the possibility that the pace of shale drilling in places like Argentina, China and Russia, which have so far lagged North America, could take off, producing sizable new sources of oil and gas on the world market. As unlikely as it may seem, a price collapse, like the one that happened to domestically produced natural gas after 2008, is something every oil executive fears.
History has a way of throwing surprises at the energy patch. After the Arab oil embargoes raised oil prices in the 1970s, few foresaw the sudden collapse of oil prices just a few years later that drove Mexico and parts of Texas into an economic tailspin. Just a decade ago, companies spent tens of billions of dollars on natural gas import terminals that turned out to be useless when an unexpected boom in shale drilling led to a glut of domestic gas. Now those terminals are being converted for export at a cost of many billions of dollars more.
“There’s reason for optimism,” said Mark Finley, BP’s general manager for global energy markets and United States economics, speaking of North America’s oil and gas
The big wild card is Mexico, whose energy fortunes have been tied to the United States ever since the late 1970s, when the country discovered great riches offshore. Over the next couple of decades, United States refiners retooled to process heavy oil from Mexico and Venezuela, but over the last decade or so production in both countries has plummeted. In the case of Mexico, oil exports to the United States have declined from 1.7 million barrels a day in 2006 to one million barrels a day in recent months.
The problem for Mexico is a sclerotic national oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, commonly known as Pemex, which has had a monopoly on production and gasoline sales since the 1930s. Known more for corruption than expertise, the company has been forced for decades to hand over its revenue to the government while underinvesting in known oil and gas fields.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has proposed to end the monopoly by allowing foreign private oil companies to explore and produce in Mexico and share in the profits. Energy experts hope Mexico can finally exploit its riches in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and in the oil- and gas-rich shale fields that cross from the United States border. Most experts say that the deepwater gulf offers the most promising results over the next five to 10 years, since international oil companies have so much experience drilling in waters adjacent to Mexican waters, and Mexican wells could be hooked up to gulf pipelines that already exist.
The words coming out of Mexico are positive. “Mexican society wants change,” Pemex’s director general, Emilio Lozoya Austin, told energy executives in March at the IHS Energy Ceraweek conference in Houston. “There is room for any kind of company to come and invest.”
Citi Research estimated last year that Mexico could have 29 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves in the gulf, and an additional 13 billion barrels of recoverable oil shale reserves. Experts say production could increase by 25 percent by 2024 to nearly four million barrels a day, potentially vaulting Mexico to the fifth or sixth position among the biggest oil-producing countries.
The United States would stand to be the big beneficiary from a Mexican bonanza, both in terms of having an extraordinary new resource on its border and from added trade with a richer neighboring partner. But foreign oil executives remain cautious.
“The positive news in Mexico will help supplies in North America,” Ryan Lance, the ConocoPhillips chief executive, told a recent Rice University energy conference. But he expressed uncertainty about how effectively Mexico would change its energy laws to attract foreign investment, asking, “Are they going to put regulations in place that will make them competitive internationally?” He did not answer his own question.
Industry executives express many concerns. They wonder how thoroughly Pemex will share its rich trove of seismic data and whether they will have to take Pemex on as a partner on projects they would rather explore on their own or with other companies. They wonder if government regulators will enforce the new energy laws fairly and if the court system will fairly adjudicate disputes between oil companies, especially where Pemex is involved.
“You can go ahead and draft all the regulations that you wish, but if those regulations are not enforced, they are totally worthless,” said Jorge R. Piñon, former president of Amoco Latin America. “We need rule of law, governance and transparency.”
The rule of law has always been in short supply in Mexico, and American oil executives express concern about deploying money and manpower south of the border as long as there is so much drug gang violence.
“They are making some promising signals,” said Chris Faulkner, chief executive of Breitling Energy, an independent oil and gas producer, “but that doesn’t mean I’m rushing down there with an armored car.”
Only a decade ago Canada’s oil sands were little more than an afterthought in the energy world, with oil prices just beginning to drive high enough to make mining in the subarctic boreal forest economically viable. But while Mexico has been in decline as an oil producer in recent years, Canadian production has soared.
The biggest oil find in the world last year occurred in deep waters off the coast of Newfoundland. And the oil sands in Western Canada represent one of the top three oil reserves in the world, after Venezuela’s and Saudi Arabia’s. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada will increase its oil production from 3.2 million barrels a day in 2012 to 4.9 million barrels a day in 2020 to 6.7 million barrels a day in 2030.
But many energy executives and experts doubt that Canada will reach its full potential because of the costs of extracting the oil sands, high royalty and tax payments and environmental concerns. The latter have jeopardized Obama administration acceptance of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect the resource to United States refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The Keystone pipeline, if eventually approved, could bring 800,000 barrels a day south to the United States. But several other pipelines will need to be built if producers are going to scale up to industry targets, and pipeline companies face opposition in Canada as well as in the United States. Rail transport can replace some pipelines, but at a higher cost.
The lack of transport has stranded the oil sands from markets, making the oil cheaper to buy than almost any other crude on the continent. That might not be a major problem if the oil sands were less expensive to produce, but they tend to be more expensive, whether mined or steamed out of the ground.
“It’s tough to make a buck,” said Bill Maloney, executive vice president for North American exploration and production at Statoil, the Norwegian state oil company, a major producer in Canada. “Without infrastructure, why should that change?”
Executives say that the “easy barrels” have already been exploited and that more complex projects are driving up costs. There are shortages of skilled labor and competition for materials, problems made all the more complicated by the need to transport equipment and otherwise operate in a frigid sub-Arctic climate. Rising costs have already put a damper on development of natural gas export terminals in British Columbia.
Reaction in the industry to the challenges has been mixed. Capital spending in the oil sands is still rising this year, driven by investments from Exxon Mobil, Canadian Natural Resources, Suncor, ConocoPhillips and Cenovus Energy. But others are slowing their commitments. This February, Royal Dutch Shell halted work on its Pierre River mine in Alberta, which was to produce 200,000 barrels a day, and more project delays are considered probable.
Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of Total, the French oil giant and a major oil sands producer, said that only seven years ago most oil sands projects could break even with an oil price of $65 to $70, but higher taxes, royalties, regulations and labor costs had driven the break-even price to $90 to $95 a barrel — just a few dollars lower than the current price.
“The Alberta government increased taxes and royalties at the same time we were faced with this tremendous inflation in costs,” Mr. Margerie said. “And we told them, ’Careful, you are going to kill the beast even before it is alive.’ “
The United States has been the jewel of global petroleum in recent years, increasing its oil production by more than 50 percent since 2008, and most energy analysts say they believe the good fortunes are sustainable for at least another decade. Natural gas production has been so plentiful that the price of the commodity has plunged, giving consumers and manufacturing industries a financial break, while gas import terminals are being turned around to export. The country has already replaced almost all imports of high-quality African oil with the booming production of the Texas and North Dakota shale oil fields.
The outlook for energy security would even be better if expectations of increasing Mexican and Canadian supplies came to pass. Talk of energy independence has become conventional wisdom, with the Energy Department reporting that the percentage of imported oil and petroleum products the United States consumes dropped to 40 percent in 2012, from 60 percent in 2005.
But the department warns that while the imported share should drop to 25 percent in 2016, it will rise again, to about 32 percent in 2040, as domestic production from shale fields begins to decline in 2022. Some oil executives say that the government is not optimistic enough and that technological improvements will continue to allow their companies to increase production at a profit. But few think that is a sure thing, and they list a number of concerns, most of which appear to be improbable — but not impossible.
There have already been problems. BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig disaster four years ago slowed development in the Gulf of Mexico, a critical component of domestic oil and gas production. Shell Oil’s attempts to explore in the Arctic waters off Alaska were undercut by a series of embarrassing accidents. Oil companies are fighting off challenges across Texas and the West by environmentalists opposed to fracking or trying to protect endangered species whose habitat includes oil fields.
In Colorado last year, three municipalities banned or suspended hydraulic fracturing in their communities, and environmentalists want to put broader restrictions on the statewide ballot in the fall. And in gas-rich Pennsylvania, the State Supreme Court recently ruled that local communities could limit drilling with zoning regulations.
One concern is that an oil glut could develop in the middle of the country that could depress prices so much it would be difficult for producers to justify sustaining production. Refineries on the Gulf of Mexico are not designed to process large quantities of “sweet” lighter oil from the new shale fields, and the oil could be left stranded — unless Washington reverses the current ban on most domestic oil exports, or refineries find it profitable enough to retool their plants to refine lighter oil.
Other concerns, outlined in a recent presentation by the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, include the possibility of a global drop in oil prices; the failure of drilling technology to expand extraction from core shale areas to more marginal, peripheral parts of the fields; stiffer rail transport standards; and bans on hydraulic fracturing. The firm concluded that those risks were unlikely to undercut the United States boom, but oil executives still express some wariness.
“If there is more aggressive regulation, a ban on trade,” Mr. Finley, BP’s analyst, cautioned, “it’s just important to recognize and appreciate the range of factors that have led to this boom and not take them for granted.”
But the biggest concern is the oil price, which has a history of gyrating in unexpected ways. Just a couple of years after the natural gas drilling boom took off, the ensuing glut caused prices to drop so sharply from 2009 to 2012 that producers were forced to stop drilling in several shale fields until prices partly recovered this year.
“Industry took the rig count down, production down and investment down,” Mr. Maloney, the Statoil executive, recalled. “So why couldn’t the same thing happen with oil?”
Industry executives note that the typical oil shale well needs a price of roughly $50 a barrel to break even, given the expense of drilling horizontally and hydraulic fracturing. “Bankers don’t want to see oil near $65,” said Mr. Faulkner, the chief executive of Breitling Energy, an active shale driller in Oklahoma and Texas. “Capital would dry up quickly like it did for gas.”
In September, Royal Dutch Shell announced its intention to sell 100,000 acres it had leased in the Eagle Ford shale field of South Texas because of out-of-control costs. An analyst at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies has estimated asset write-downs approaching $35 billion in recent years among 15 of the main operators in the shale gas and oil fields, a tiny percentage of the total investment but a sign that shale field development is sensitive to market shifts and drilling disappointments.
What makes shale drilling particularly challenging is that wells produce most of their oil and gas in the first years of production, requiring more and more drilling in lower-quality zones of the fields.

“If W.T.I. prices come down hard,” said Lawrence J. Goldstein, a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation, referring to West Texas Intermediate, the American benchmark crude, “investment will fall off, and you need constant investment for production just to stand still.” He added: “I am very optimistic, but only if we continue to invest.”

1398. The Rainforests in Congo Basin Show Signs of Climate Change Stress

By Henry Fountain, The New York Times, April 23, 2014

Years of drier conditions in the Congo River basin in central Africa appear to be affecting trees in the region’s vast rain forests, scientists reported on Wednesday.
Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers said the capacity of the trees to photosynthesize had declined. If this trend continues, they suggested, a long-term result could be changes in the structure and composition of the region’s forests, the largest expanse of rain forest in the world after the Amazon. Those potential changes — which could eventually mean a shift from a classic rain forest with a closed canopy of trees to a more open, savanna-like environment — could affect the region’s biodiversity and its capacity to fix and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The lead researcher, Liming Zhou of the University at Albany, cautioned that the analysis had used only data from remote-sensing satellites, including one that uses forest greenness as an indirect measure of photosynthetic capacity. He and others said that field studies were needed to confirm any changes that are occurring — to determine, for instance, whether trees are actually dying from the drought, which the satellite data did not show.
“This is just a very first step,” Dr. Zhou said.
Many models of climate change project that periods of drought will increase in the tropics, home to most of the world’s rain forests. Average rainfall in the Congo basin has been declining for several decades, and while this may not be a consequence of climate change — one recent study suggests that it is part of a natural cycle — studying the impact will help scientists understand what may be in store as the planet warms.
“This is the type of signal you’d expect if a region is experiencing a directed shift in climate,” said Jeffrey Q. Chambers, a geographer at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of a commentary on the research, also published in Nature. “What needs to happen now is continued observation to better understand whether, in fact, this is a climate-related trend.”
“Satellite data can only tell you so much,” Dr. Chambers said. “You really need to get into the field and see what’s happening.”
Most studies of the impact of reduced rainfall on rain forests have taken place in the Amazon. Conditions in that region have been different from those in the Congo basin — the Amazon experienced two short but intense droughts in the past decade, rather than a more gradual, long-term drought — and the effects have been studied on the ground as well as from orbit. Very few field studies have been conducted in the Congo basin.
Although rain forests stretch into West Africa, cloud cover and pollution affect the quality of satellite data from that region. So Dr. Zhou and his colleagues focused on the Congo basin, using data from several sensor systems, including one that produces images of the entire planet every few days at various wavelengths of light, visible and otherwise.
Use of this kind of satellite imagery is a subject of much debate because the position of the sun can produce shadows in the images that can affect the analysis. But Dr. Chambers said the researchers appeared to have minimized that problem by looking at images collected during the same period from year to year.
They found that the forests had become less green over the last decade. That correlates with changes in the health of the vegetation, including a decline in the amount of the green pigment chlorophyll, which plants use for photosynthesis. Data from other satellite sensors, including ones that showed changes in water content in the vegetation and in the land, were consistent with the finding on greenness, as were the data on rainfall.
“Trees are not as vigorous without enough water,” Dr. Zhou said, and over time, drought will favor deciduous trees rather than broad-leaved evergreens, which account for most of the trees in a tropical rain forest.

The period of the study was too short to see such large-scale changes. “But that’s what we’re worried about for the future, in the context of global warming,” Dr. Zhou said.

1397. Vermont Will Require Labeling of Genetically Altered Foods

By Stephanie, Strom, The New York Times, April 23, 2014

Going further than any state so far, Vermont on Wednesday passed a law requiring the labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Though the move came in a tiny state far from the nation’s population centers, proponents of such labeling immediately hailed the legislative approval as a significant victory. Labeling efforts are underway in some 20 other states, and the biotech and food industries have been pushing for federal legislation that would pre-empt such action.
“This is a historic day for the people’s right to know,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group that helped draft the Vermont legislation, said in a statement.
Governor Peter Shumlin, who had expressed reservations about the bill, said after the vote that he would sign it into law.
“There is no doubt that there are those who will work to derail this common-sense legislation,” he said in a statement. “But I believe this bill is the right thing to do and will gain momentum elsewhere after our action here in Vermont.” He had earlier predicted that opponents of labeling would immediately take the state to court over the law.
The vote Wednesday by the House of Representatives was 114 to 30 and followed approval by the Senate last week. The law would start July 1, 2016.
More than 90 percent of the nation’s corn, soy, canola and sugar beets — from which the bulk of the nation’s sugar is derived — are grown from transgenic seeds, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association has estimated that some 80 percent of foods found in grocery stores contain ingredients made from such crops.
Products containing ingredients like canola oil, soy lecithin, dextrose and sorbitol would have to be labeled under the Vermont law and other labeling proposals.
Connecticut passed a law requiring labeling last June, but it was contingent on several requirements, and Maine passed a similar law last year. Labeling will not go into effect in Connecticut, for instance, until at least four other states, one of them contiguous, pass similar requirements. And the combined population of those states must be at least 20 million.
Vermont has roughly 626,000 people, census figures show, so food companies could simply stop stocking grocery shelves without much lost revenue.
Big food manufacturers and the biotech industry that produces the seeds for genetically engineered crops contend that mandatory labeling of products containing ingredients derived from those crops — also known as genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s — will be tantamount to putting a skull-and-crossbones on them.
They also fear a hodgepodge of state labeling rules that might complicate packaging and production for food companies.
“Any law requiring the labeling of food that contain G.M.O.s creates extra costs for farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, grocers and consumers,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for BIO, the biotech trade group. “The bill passed today is especially problematic because it puts these additional burdens solely on Vermont’s citizens without any added benefit.”

The federal legislation drafted by BIO and others would place the decision to require labeling in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for food labeling in general.

Friday, April 25, 2014

1396. Book Review: Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus

By Federico Ferretti, Antipode, December 2013

John Clark and Camille Martin (eds), Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus, Oakland: PM Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-60486-429-8 (paper) 

This is a new edition of an important selection of writings by the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), translated from French by the editors John Clark and Camille Martin. The editors note that, with conferences held in 2005 in Lyon, Milan, New Orleans, Montpellier, Mexico and Barcelona to mark the 100th anniversary of Reclus’ death, “in recent years, the rate of publication of works on or by Reclus has grown exponentially” (p. ix); this is certainly true for our own discipline, which has seen increasing interest in ‘anarchist geographies’[1].

Clark and Martin translated 11 pamphlets, articles or book chapters by Reclus, four of which come from his last work L’Homme et la Terre [1905], which several authors consider to be the anarchist geographer’s most complete expression of his political and social thought. The first paper, ‘The feeling for Nature in modern society’ [1866], was published by Reclus in the French journal La Revue des Deux Mondes, and belonged to a series in which he dealt with the relationship between humankind and nature, anticipating several themes of the more recent debates on the environment. I notice that, among these writings for La Revue des Deux Mondes, there was also a review of Man and Nature [1864] by the American geographer George Perkins-Marsh (1801-1882), Reclus’ friend and correspondent, which is not included in this edition (see Reclus 1864). In it Reclus criticized Perkins-Marsh’s idea of Man as a ‘disturber’, because his humanist approach didn’t envisage a pure, untouched nature, or the myth of wilderness. For Reclus, the main aim was to create a harmonic equilibrium between humankind and the environment, considered not as separable terms of a dialectical relationship.

The second and third texts, ‘To my brother the peasant’ [1893] and ‘Anarchy’ [1894] - sharing the same titles as the contemporary pamphlets L’anarchia and Fra contadini by the celebrated Italian Anarchist Errico Malatesta (1853-1932), are classical texts, short and simple, written as anarchist propaganda for popular classes. One characteristic of the anarchist movement was the refusal to recognize the existence of a privileged revolutionary class, as Marxists did with the modern industrial proletariat. Anarchist propaganda spoke equally to rural workers, considering important the spreading of consciousness of different kinds of oppression and the affirmation of universal and international brotherhood among rural and urban workers. Reclus stated that the division of the oppressed favored only oppressors, who hoped that hungry people “just eat one another” (p.119).

‘The extended family’ [1896] is a text where Reclus expressed his sympathy for the animal world, and for a respectful association of humans and non-human animals, already practiced in several so-called ‘primitive’ communities. I think that it is rather unfair to, as Clark does, try to evaluate how far Reclus was “anthropocentric” (p.21): the concept clearly didn’t exist at the time he was writing. But I also think that it is relevant to notice, as Clark does, that Reclus, vegetarian and supporter of mutual aid among different species, was one of the first European authors to put the question of enlarging the circle of solidarity beyond the frontiers of humankind, stating “for my part, I also include animals in my feeling of socialist solidarity” (p.32).

‘Evolution, revolution, and the anarchist ideal’ [1898] is a synthesis of perhaps the most famous of Reclus’ anarchist propaganda - Evolution, revolution, et l’idéal anarchique. In this text the anarchist geographer exposed one of his pivotal political principles: evolution and revolution are not irreconcilable alternatives, but phases of the same historical process leading humankind progressively to higher levels of equality and freedom. This was criticized, even among some anarchists, for its optimism, yet it nevertheless has the advantage, in comparison with other contemporary conceptions, of avoiding both the messianism of revolution and the idea of a linear history; Reclus’ concept of historical development, some aspects of which were inspired by the philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), considered both progressions and regressions in the ongoing struggle between authority and freedom. In this dialectic, revolutions are moments of necessary rupture inserted in the frame of a slower evolutionary process.

‘On vegetarianism’ [1901] is a pamphlet affirming the ethics, and health benefits, of vegetarianism, starting with a very touching personal experience and expressing full compassion for all the victims of butchers. However, as Reclus was moved by principles of humanism and tolerance, we don’t find an explicit condemnation of people making different choices.

The following four chapters are taken from the volumes five and six of L’Homme et la Terre. ‘The history of cities’ expresses the urban thinking of Reclus, who shared the criticism of the insalubrity of cities with the hygienists of his time, but considered it in the frame of class contradictions and the general necessity to reform society. At the same time, he refused the ‘urbaphobie’ of several hygienists, stating that sociability and encounter is necessary for human beings. To meet these needs, Reclus was a supporter, together with Pëtr Kropotkin (1842-1921), of a decentralised model aiming to overcome the traditional limits between town and countryside, which inspired the thinking of Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) and Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) on the ‘Garden City’ and ‘Regional Planning’ respectively (see Dunbar 1978; Raffestin 2007; Ferretti 2012).

‘The modern state’ is a critique of the state apparatus starting from its historical development and ending with the statement that globalization will render the peoples progressively closer to each other, so a common future stands in international solidarity, refusal of nationalism and wars, and cosmopolitanism. In this, argued Reclus, geography could play an important role, teaching respect and mutual knowledge between different peoples and representing the world according to the principle of human unity.

‘Culture and property’ analyses the historical origins of property. Reclus proposed a classic appreciation of the ancient commons and traditional cooperative work, and was an acute critic of the concentration of modern capital, observing the efficiency, in some cases, of production’s decentralization and small-scale economy. That said, he was aware of the transnational nature of capital fluxes, and, as astutely noted by Clark, “he observes that the ability of capital to transgress all boundaries of state and nationality gives it a great advantage over political power” (p.83).

‘Progress’ is the last chapter of L’Homme et la Terre, resuming Reclus’ thinking on several topics, like the definition of progress, which according to Reclus is not a linear process. “The missionaries who encounter magnificent savages moving about freely in their nakedness believe that they will bring them ‘progress’ by giving them dresses and shirts, shoes and hats, catechisms and Bibles, and by teaching them to chant psalms in English or Latin” (p.209-210). Inspired by Vico’s discourse on corsi e ricorsi (ebb and flow) of historical evolution, Reclus rejected the presumption that ‘civilization’ had accomplished real progress from supposedly barbarous times. Real progress, according to Reclus, means “the conquest of bread” (p.224); he fumed at “our much-acclaimed half-civilization (it is only half-civilized because it is far from benefiting everyone)” (p.227). He noted that nobody among the so- called savages, would accept to live in some of the industrial slums of the ‘civilized’ world. According to him, it is not by the pretension of superiority, but by the “complete union of the civilized with the savage and with nature” (p.231) that society could reach equality, that is, true progress. This conclusion is consistent with Reclus’ early radical opposition to racism, colonialism and imperialism[2], recognized by Clark, who argues that Reclus “vehemently opposes the spread of imperial state power” (p.80).

*     *     *

In his long introductory essay (p.3-100), Clark explores the wide range of social and scientific topics mobilized by Reclus. In Clark’s thinking on Elisée Reclus, there are some controversial points, particularly his statement that Reclus was a forerunner of Social Ecology, which engendered in 1997 a public debate between Clark and the French geographer Philippe Pelletier3. The latter stated that Reclus is not identifiable as an ‘ecologist’, as he chose deliberately to not use the label ‘ecology’ because this term was utilized by Ernst Heackel (1834-1919) - a social Darwinist opposed to socialism, who was well-known and explicitly criticized by Reclus, who preferred the definition ‘mesology’, proposed by his friend Adolphe Bertillon (1821-1883). According to Pelletier (2013) - and I agree with him - Reclus’ definition of ‘Social Geography’, which at that time was synonymous with ‘Socialist Geography’, clearly represented an alternative to contemporary ecology and ecological thought, sketching out a program which was primarily anarcho-socialist.

I don’t enter into the details of this discussion, which is available online, but as a historian of geography I’d note the clear influence on Reclus of German Naturphilosophie (‘Philosophy of Nature’), through authors like Lorenz Oken (1779-1851) and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), whose writings played an important part in his early intellectual development (see Reclus 1911). The same philosophers inspired widely the geographers who shaped Reclus’ scientific conceptions, like Carl Ritter (1779-1859) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) (see le Scanff 2001; Tang 2008). In a nutshell, I can affirm that Reclus, like the Naturphilosophers, considered humankind and nature as consubstantial and in constant relation. This perspective is neither ‘monism’ nor ‘dualism’, and it renders impossible both the Biblical idea of man’s domination of nature and Perkins-Marsh’s nostalgic dream of a wild nature (which today could be compared, with some prudence, to some expressions of the so-called ‘deep ecology’).

On the one side, it is clear that there is a high risk of anachronism in associating, like Clark and Martin do, an author who lived between 1830 and 1905 to very present concepts and problems like ‘ecofeminism’ (p.vii), ‘resilience’ (p.viii) or ‘climate change’ (p.viii): problems, categories and concepts simply did not existed, or conceived in a radically different way, in Reclus’ time. Nevertheless, considering the wide circulation of Reclus’ ideas, during his lifetime as well as more recently, beyond both the disciplinary borders of geography and the political borders of anarchism, I agree with the picture Clark paints of him as “a significant figure in modern European social and political theory in general” (p.73), whose ideas are still useful (and, indeed, used) in several urgent debates on present problems. Clark and Martin’s collection deserves praise, to my mind, for making available in the Anglophone world important texts by Elisée Reclus.

1. See for instance the Antipode special issue ‘Reanimating Anarchist Geographies’ (volume 44, number 5, 2012) and the ACME special issue ‘Anarchist and Autonomous Marxist Geographies’ (volume 11, number 3, 2012).
2. On which see Ferretti (2013).
3. See Clark (1997) and Pelletier (1997).

Clark J (1997) Du bon usage d’Elisée Reclus. Le Monde Libertaire (last accessed 11 December 2013)
Dunbar G (1978) Élisée Reclus: Historian of Nature. Hamden: Archon
Ferretti F (2012) Aux origines de l’aménagement régional: le schéma de la Valley Section de Patrick Geddes (1925) M@ppemonde (last accessed 11 December 2013)
Ferretti F (2013) “They have the right to throw us out”: Élisée Reclus’ New Universal Geography. Antipode 45(5):1337-1355
Pelletier P (1997) John Clark analysant Elisée Reclus, ou comment prendre ses désirs pour des réalités. Le Monde Libertaire
article105&lang=fr (last accessed 11 December 2013)
Pelletier P (2013) Géographie et anarchie: Reclus, Kropotkine, Metchnikoff. Paris: Éditions du Monde Libertaire
Raffestin C (2007) Storia di un ruscello. In M Schmidt di Friedberg (ed) Elisée Reclus:
natura ed educazione. Milan: Bruno Mondadori
Reclus E (1864) L’Homme et la nature: de l’action humaine sur la géographie physique. La Revue des Deux Mondes 54:762-771
Reclus E (1911) Correspondance, Vol. I. Paris, Schleicher
le Scanff Y (2001) L’origine littéraire d’un concept géographique: l’image de la France duelle. Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines 5(2):61-93
Tang C (2008) The Geographic Imagination of Modernity: Geography, Literature, and
Philosophy in German Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Federico Ferretti Department of Geography and Environment University of Geneva

Thursday, April 24, 2014

1395. Rethinking Historical Materialism: Sociality, Solitude, and the Struggle for Socialism

By Jeff Noonan, Philosophers for Change, April  , 2014
Jeff Noonan
The basic principle of historical materialism is that all complex socio-cultural systems and institutions are rooted in and ultimately depend upon reproductive and productive labour. Reproductive and productive labour connect human beings to each other and the sustaining natural environment. “The production of life,” Marx wrote in The German Ideology, “both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation… appears as two-fold relation: on the one hand, as a natural, on the other, as a social relation—social in the sense that it denotes the cooperation of several individuals.”[1] The second principle of historical materialism is that conscious commitment to the cooperative ethos embedded in life-productive and life-reproductive labour has been repeatedly impeded by different concrete forms of social division. While the institutions and legitimating value systems differ, there is a common basis to these social divisions: private and exclusive control over the resources all require in order to survive, develop, and create lives that are valuable and valued. Historical materialism, as a critical and not simply an analytical method, is a form of understanding that aims to contribute to the solution of the problems these social divisions generate for the lives of those forced into dependent labour. Practice depends upon theory just as much as theory depends on practice.
In order to realize its basic practical goal of overcoming private control over universally required resources, historical materialism must draw political and social generalizations from its studies of the past. The problem has been that these generalizations have then tended to be treated as necessarily true for the future, and not just, as the evidence warrants, the past and immediate present. Unfortunately for the truth of these predictions, human history has proven remarkably inventive, within the constraints imposed by biological life-requirements and the social relations needed to satisfy them. Given this inventiveness, the third principle of historical materialism ought to be that concrete political inferences drawn from the study of social and natural life-processes are provisional generalizations only, always refutable by subsequent developments unanticipated in the period when the generalization was first made. While Marx never formulated such a principle explicitly, he was aware of the need for something like it. He warned certain supporters, late in his life, against turning historical materialism into “a historico-philosophical theory whose greatest advantage lies in its being beyond history.”[2] The warning was not heeded.
Instead, supporters typically took ideas like the primacy of the working class to the struggle for socialism and the progressive nature of the development of the forces of production as generalizations that would, in the first case, hold true as long as capitalism lasted, and, in the second, into the socialist era as well. Being a historical materialist has typically been interpreted to mean that one is committed both to an open-ended analysis of the changing pattern of social and cultural life that reproductive and productive labour engender and certain fixed principles concerning class struggle and productive force and scientific development. While this belief has been typical, it does not follows from, is indeed ruled out by, the first and second principles of historical materialism. They do not, and logically cannot, commit one to the future truth of any generalization, because life-processes and the struggles they generate are, by historical materialism’s own account, dynamic and open-ended, and therefore potentially productive of problems and solutions which could not be seen at the time when a given generalization was made.
In this paper I will explore the general theoretical and the immediate practical consequences of my third principle of historical materialism. I will argue that if one takes seriously Marx’s claim that history originates in life-productive and life-reproductive labour, then historical materialism is essentially life-grounded. The life-ground of historical materialism entails a reconsideration of at least three core practical claims associated with its usual formulations: the primacy of the working class over other oppressed groups in the struggle for socialism; the necessary connection between the growth of the productive forces and historical progress towards socialism; and the connection between techno-scientific development and the emergence of forms of “rich individuality” which socialism will liberate.
The argument will be developed in three sections. In the first, I will provide a concise re-reading of historical materialism as a life-grounded practical human science of the concrete. In the second, I will argue that it follows from this re-reading that movements struggling for liberation from the different forms of capitalist oppression, exploitation, and alienation find their common ground not in working class consciousness of its historical mission, but in the systematic barriers they face in accessing the goods, institutions, and relationships valuable and valued lives require. Not only must the structure of socialist movements be reconsidered, the immediate targets of struggle must also be constantly re-evaluated. In contemporary conditions of accelerated capitalist restructuring of social life, preservative struggles (struggle to preserve older forms of solidarity threatened by the forces of contemporary capitalism) take on a new significance. In the third, I will argue amongst all the preservative struggles currently underway, none is more important than the struggle to preserve time and space for the cultivation of rich forms of imaginative interiority. At this point in the development of capitalist techno-science the intrinsic link Marx saw between scientific development and robust, multifaceted individuality is being severed, and the effects of virtual reality and on-line social networks are in fact tending to erode the interiority that Marx’s understanding of ‘rich individuality” presupposes. The social conditions in which this general idea of rich individuality could be realized as the form of life for every individual remain valuable as the generic content of socialism, but part of the social conditions must now include, I will argue, space and time apart from others. Having something to say and to give to others requires moments of solitude impossible in on-line life.
I: Historical Materialism: A Practical Human Science of Concrete-Life Processes
As an explanation of the dynamics of human history, historical materialism focuses the processes by which reproductive and productive labour generate social structures, institutions, and symbolic codes that seek to govern, control, and legitimise that government and control over, the basic life-processes from which they emerge. Labour, productive or reproductive, is, for Marx, the “nature-imposed condition of human life,” but it changes as reflective intelligence responds to novel environmental and social challenges.[3] As an analysis of human history, historical materialism is primarily interested in the processes by which one set of social institutions reaches its limits and gives way to a new set of institutions capable of solving the structural problems the previous social form could not solve. By following the changes in the labour process as its through-line, historical materialism is able to avoid the error of reifying historical dynamics as quasi-natural laws. As a corollary of the principle that social regularities change as societies change, historical materialism also demonstrates the truth that no particular set of social roles and ruling value system is any more “natural” (i.e., timelessly legitimate) than any other.
At the same time, historical materialism also provides grounds to support the claim that while moralities and social roles are not naturally fixed, there are objective grounds for distinguishing between better and worse forms of social organization. Whatever the particularities of a given social form, underlying it, but generally hidden, is a general life-interest that the institutions must serve. No social form can survive the fundamental breakdown of its systems of productive and reproductive labour or the natural systems in which they are grounded. In other words, all social life depends upon the natural environment and the social structures that mediate the productive and reproductive labour in and on that environment. Whatever else a society produces, it must produce life-goods and it must preserve the life-capital out of which those goods are regularly produced. Life-capital is, as McMurtry argues, “the life base of the common interest—that without which humanity’s life-capacities degrade and die. It is the bridging concept across the economy-environment division as well as across present and future generations… the true meaning of economic necessity and the sole substances of growth and development.”[4]
Life-capital and life-goods—that which supports and enables life in all eras and grows in all conditions of genuine social progress—are what Marx’s argument that history emerges out of forms of life-engendering labour requires to be complete, but neither he nor subsequent Marxists have spelled it out consistently. Marx’s conception of capital remains one-sided—value that produces more value, whereas the life-ground of historical materialism points to the deeper idea of life-capital—life that produces more life as the real foundation of human life, and all that may rationally be called good in it. That Marx and subsequent Marxists have failed to see this life-ground does not mean that it was not there all along. Now that environmental breakdown, non-Marxist political struggles against capitalist life-destructiveness, and decades of philosophical labour have brought it to light, contemporary historical materialist critique of capitalism can overcome the limitations of its nineteenth century origins without losing its grip on productive and reproductive labour as the fundamental driving force of historical change.
If all social institutions ultimately seek to reproduce themselves, then they must enable the production and reproduction of at least as much social labour as is necessary to maintain the society. The people who undertake the productive and reproductive labour that sustains society are not, no matter how they might be treated by the ruling class, mere tools, but socially self-conscious centres of activity and potential enjoyment. They are capable of fighting back against life-destructive and unsatisfying forms of exploitation and oppression. Along with creative response to environmental challenges, historical materialism must count social struggle as a force of change. Historical materialism is thus not only an objective analysis of social change, it is a practical human science of the concrete which intervenes in history on behalf of the majorities in every age who do most of the reproductive and productive labour, but are dominated by the ruling class standing Oz-like behind the curtains of political power and the justifications for it thrown up by the ruling value system of society. The analytical and critical and the objective and subjective are not two independent parts of historical materialism, they are internally integrated with each other. The essential analytical finding of historical materialism is that “human beings make their own history.” It follows from this fact that they can always change “the circumstances not of their own choosing” which each new generation confronts as a given set of facts.[5]
Yet, it does not follow from the collective capacity to change society that any particular set of social changes is necessarily better than the forms of life it changes. That a revolutionary intervention into the established order of things is possible does not mean that it is legitimate, or that human life, collectively and individually, necessarily improves as a result. Marx sought to legitimate revolution on the basis of a theory of social crisis that maintained that social forms reach a point beyond which they can no longer fulfill even basic life-support functions—they objectively break down, which in effect forces the majority—who always suffer first and most in any crisis—to intervene and resolve the crisis through fundamental social change.[6] Marx conceived the revolutionary process as class struggle, and historical change as changes in the ruling class, which, after its victory, re-orders social institutions to consolidate its rule and establish its social interests as supreme.[7] The final revolution would be a revolution of the proletariat which, as the social power which performs all productive (but not all reproductive) labour, has no need to exploit anyone else. Once it has overcome the bourgeoisie which exploits and alienates its labour, the basic contradiction of human history—that some live on the productive labour of others without productive contribution of their own, (or, in life-value terms, that some appropriate life-capital without contributing back to it)—has been resolved. Overthrowing the bourgeoisie and removing the fetters on the forces of production is, for Marx and most subsequent Marxists, the necessary conditions for the construction of “that economic formation… which with the highest upswing of productive forces of social work assures mankind its most universal development.”[8]One can once again see the implicit life-ground of historical materialism appear in Marx’s theory of crisis. Revolutions are made possible by breakdowns in the system of productive and reproductive labour, upon which human life ultimately depends. Yet, in its concrete explication, Marx’s theory of revolution focuses only on the effects of crisis on the political agency and consciousness of the working class. In its subsequent “orthodox” developments, culminating in the Stalinist and Maoist disasters, historical materialism insisted upon the primacy of the development of the productive forces to the success of the socialist project. Socialism itself tended to be understood not in terms of non-alienated labour as well as non-alienated forms of mutualistic relationships and life-experience and activity across all dimensions of human life-capacity, but higher levels of consumption and parochial, stifling forms of community.
The great multitude of dissident Marxisms, with the exceptions of certain feminist and eco-centric variants, (Saleh, Kovel, Foster) also lost sight of the originating but implicit life-ground in favour of idealist doctrines of the socio-historical construction of everything, including human needs.[9] The later path can be traced to Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, in which even nature is taken to be a historical product.[10] What both orthodox and Western Marxist variants shared was the idea that socialism had to come about through revolution which swept away all ‘bourgeois” forms of social life, social relationship, and individual identity. The idea that preservation of older elements of social life, relationships, and identity as a life-capital inheritance from past ages of labour, preserved in civil commons institutions and older forms of relationship, narrative, memory, and traditional life-practice generally could become of central importance to the struggle against capitalism is anathema to almost all interpretations of historical materialism.
II: The Life-Ground of Multidimensional Social Struggles and the Future Value of the Past
As I noted in the introduction, historical materialism risks contradicting its two fundamental methodological principles, as well as its deeper implicit life-ground, if it believes that general structural features of capitalism ensure the future truth of contextual political generalizations. Today, three such generalizations have been called into question: (1) that the working class must always be the leader of the struggle for socialism; (2) that growth of the productive forces and techno-scientific development are always progressive; and (3) that the struggle for socialism is a struggle for a society rooted in a completely new set of institutions and values. I will work through each of these claims in turn.
David Camfield has recently (and rightly) argued that historical materialism has not ever really “grasped the extent to which contemporary societies… have been socially organized both extensively and intensively by social relations other than class—those of gender, race, and sexuality—as well as by class. These social relations are not epiphenomena. Where they exist… social reality is constituted by them at the same time as it is constituted by class [and they must not] be treated as ‘add-ons.’”[11] However, if the experience of social reality is not only formed by one’s class position, but by one’s gender and sexual and racial identity, then it follows that class, from the perspective of those other identity-formations, is one element of identity amongst many. If historical materialism continues to justify a path of historical change which identifies the proletariat as the embodiment of universal human interests, then it follows straightforwardly that the other identities are being treated as add-ons, important only for the way in which they modify a working class consciousness that remains foundational for the project.
In order to solve this problem, historical materialism requires the distinct understanding of universal interests and a different conception of the content and political means for achieving “the most universal development of humanity” that materialist ethics can provide. If racial and sexual and gender oppression are not to be treated as mere add-ons to class, then all must be understood as concrete forms of identity that shape human lives. Human beings are social self-conscious centres of experience and activity, whose immediate life-horizons are shaped by their actual social identity. Their actual social identity is always a complex of sex, gender, race, ethnic, age, and class factors. These factors are both given (because given ruling value systems assign meanings to these markers of identity) and alterable (because given ruling value systems can be changed through changed forms of action and interaction). That which motivates struggles for change is the experience of being limited in one’s range of experience and activity by one’s social position and identity, but underlying the struggle as its ultimate justification is a universal human life-interest in securing comprehensive access to those resources, institutions, and forms of relationship that free life-capacity development requires. These life-requirements are shared across all different concrete identities, although the experience of being deprived of that which will satisfy them (as well as the specific means of satisfying them) varies with the identity concerned. Class exploitation, alienation, and the variety of oppressive hierarchies operative in a society at any given time find their unifying ground in the principle that all are systematic ways of depriving, and justifying the deprivation of, one or more natural-biological, social-cultural, or temporal conditions of living and leading a valuable and valued life.[12]To be a woman, for example, in a patriarchal society is to have one’s ability to satisfy one’s life requirements impeded by false assumptions about “women’s nature,” impediments which may be intensified relative to one’s racial identity, sexuality, age, and class position. What matters politically most of all is not one marker of identity as opposed to another, but rather the concrete experience of facing specific additional burdens in the struggle to satisfy one’s life-requirement and the realization of one’s life-capacities because of one’s position in the social hierarchy constructed by the ruling value system. For all oppressed, exploited, and alienated people the goal of struggle is the same—comprehensive, universal access to the means of life-support, development, and enjoyment—but articulated through different concrete histories, anchored in different concrete experiences of the structurally identical barriers.
If that is true, then it follows that all alienated, exploited, and oppressed groups have the same political life-interest: eliminate those social institutions, and the false ideas that justify them, that impede the universal and comprehensive satisfaction of the shared life-interests of each and all, in those forms that are adequate to the concrete identities that shape the experience of oneself and social life. Achieving this goal by whatever political means genuinely advance it—means which will necessarily differ depending upon the particular levels of social development of the society in which groups find themselves—is the general condition for that sort of “universal development” that Marx associated with socialism. Given the universal threats to universal development today—environmental crisis, economic crisis, the steady erosion of democracy, the persistence of archaic forms of oppressive hierarchy, the generalized nihilism of the ruling money-value system—there is no longer any historical ground for maintaining that the working class alone embodies the universal human life-interests. The embodiment of the universal human life-interest is the species in the concrete universality of its different identities, and anyone who recognizes the threats and undertakes to address their causes in a way that frees resources from life-destructive uses for the sake of adding to our life-capital stores is a proponent of the conditions of “universal development,” whatever their actual identity and whatever they happen to call themselves. The social conditions that enable the “most universal development” of human life must be constantly re-evaluated in light of what actual histories of struggle teach, not only about what works and what does not at the level of social organization, but what is more or less valuable and valued in human life by people who take the time to reflect upon what their societies offer, and what they actually require.
It is in this light that the generalization concerning the necessarily progressive nature of productive force and techno-scientific development must be considered. Capitalist social dynamics not only prevent the emergence of life-valuable forms of expressing and enjoying cognitive, imaginative, and practical-creative capacities, they also constantly threaten the life time and space that past struggles and older forms of human sociality and experience have carved out and protect from absorption into capitalist markets. This claim is true in traditional societies not yet fully incorporated into capitalist money-value circuits, but it is also true in the most technologically developed social spaces. However, in the later spaces there are new forms of threat to older solidarities and forms of experience and interaction. Beyond security of access to the most basic life-requirement satisfiers, the most important of the general conditions for the free development of our life-capacities is the experience of time as free, as an open matrix of possibilities for life-valuable action, experience, and relationship.[13]
Marx was the first to systematically understand the role of free time, but what he did not understand was that the high degree of labour productivity that capitalist techno-science made possible and which was responsible for what he regarded as free time (time outside of necessary labour), could itself become, past a certain point of development, the primary threat to individuals being able to experience that time as free. Marx believed that capitalist competition drove techno-scientific progress, which in turn drove labour productivity, which in turn created surplus time, which would be appropriated as free time in a socialist society.[14] Free time would be realized “in the development of the rich individuality, which is as varied in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour no longer appears as labour, but as the full development of activity itself in which natural necessity has disappeared in its immediate form, because natural need has been replaced by historically produced need.”[15] From his vantage point on the nineteenth century, focussing on a working class still living in conditions of monstrous deprivation, Marx could see no contradiction, and no possible contradiction, between the given structure of historically produced needs and “the rich individuality.” At this point in techno-scientific and social development, I believe, such a contradiction has opened up. The forms of social interaction which new communications technologies are making possible do permit the extension and deepening of social connection across the globe and new forms of play and virtual labour, and in that sense they add new content to the meaning of “rich individuality.” On the other hand, social networks and virtual life generally are altering our understanding of what social relationships mean, as well as the relationship between the imagination and its material realizations in ways which, I will argue, work against the subjective conditions for the development of the “rich individual.”
This result is perhaps doubly ironic: first, because the defenders of networked society justify it precisely on the grounds that Marx invokes here: it promotes a “multi-sided production and consumption” and second, because it depends upon recapturing the free time opened up by the more productive labour which Marx regarded as the temporal substance for socialist society. In recapturing the potential free time opened up by highly productive labour, networked capitalism has simultaneously intensified the experience of time as a coercive external force and threatened the forms of interiority “rich individuality” requires. I will return to this point in Section Three below.
Before turning to a more nuanced discussion of the problems of virtual social networks the third problematic generalization must be examined. Valuable and valued lives certainly require a variety of life-serving, non-alienated forms of labour. However, since human life is a unity of sentient, cognitive, imaginative, and practical-creative capacities, its valuable and valued forms require more than opportunities to work in non-alienated, worker-governed ways. Good human lives involve the full and free development of our capacities for non-exploitative and non-appropriative relationships—with the natural world generally (as an intrinsically valuable field of living and non-living things and forces), with other people, and with our own inner life as field of imaginative play and projection. The latter is especially important as a condition of our becoming uniquely individuated contributors to the health and vitality of the natural and social worlds we share. These non-exploitative and non-appropriative relationships are threatened by the generally exploitative, instrumentalizing, and alienating forms of action and interaction typical of capitalist society. At the same time, not every form of relationship or every experience in capitalist society is alienated, oppressive, or exploitative. Alongside the deformations and deprivations of capitalism one finds forms of action and interaction which are satisfying, mutually affirmative, and life-building—elements of a socialist value system and modes of interaction existing within and alongside of alienating capitalist relationships. Friendships, relationships, moments of beauty snatched from the dreary tedium of social routine, and institutions which develop out of solidaristic commitment to one another are also elements of capitalist society, but whose sources are not reducible to the capitalist social forms in which they continue to exist.In conditions of highly developed productive forces, in which human beings are now found increasingly as nodes in virtual social networks, a seeming political paradox emerges: progressive demands must include conservative—or perhaps better said, preservative—elements. The claim, however, is only apparently paradoxical. As Andrew Collier has demonstrated in an essay of superb originality, Marx’s own understanding of political struggle was not determined by abstract ideals whose realization depended upon the complete destruction of existing social forms (what he calls the Noah complex) but by an organic conception of struggle driven by people trying to solve the immediate and concrete problems they face. He argues that “capitalist society is not just the capitalist economy. The institutions of capitalist society which generate values in their participants include families and circles of friends, trade unions and cooperative societies, churches and mosques, allotment associations and babysitting circles and so on, and these generate values of mutual help and solidarity and another non-commercial values.”[16] It is demonstrably the case that the values of mutual help, solidarity, and relationship for the sake of the pleasures of human relationship are all threatened by the current dynamics of the capitalist economy.
These are threatened externally, by attacks on solidaristic associations that have evolved to fight against or mitigate the rule of money-value over all facets of life, and internally, by the loss of interiority and material interaction to networks of virtual sociality advanced capitalist society is making increasingly compulsory. If these claims are true it suggests that the problem with highly developed capitalism is not that its relations of production are impeding the development of the forces of production, but that the run-away growth of the forces of production and their embodiment in networked cybernetic systems is destroying the social and interior foundations for valuable and valued lives. If this claim is true, then the “radical needs” that Marcuse felt underlay demands for revolution are not exclusively needs for a future different from the present in all respects, but for a future that in some essential respects preserves or recovers forms of slow, material interactions between unnetworked selves.[17]
Some, like Giuseppe Tassone might object that to affirm the value of preservative struggles is to abandon the boldness of vision and radicality required to overcome capitalism in favour of merely “ethical denunciation.”[18] In response it must be said that ethical denunciation is an essential moment of historical materialist criticism. If the critique of capitalism is not a critique of the way in which it impedes the possibility of people leading good lives, then it is merely technocratic critique of economic functions that holds no interest to most people. On the other hand, to the extent that the faith that Tassone places in the possibility of “historical leaps” beyond what seems objectively possible in a given moment is not ahistorical wishful thinking, it is fully compatible with the sort of preservative struggle I am describing here. It is true that preservation in the face of relentless pressure to serve capitalist commodity markets also requires transformative struggles against those forces, but that is no reason to not preserve older, life-valuable forms of non-alienated social relationships where they exist.
Indeed, a society that protects some time outside of and apart from virtual networks has become, I will now argue, an essential condition of the emergence of Marx’s “rich individual.” In order to become a person with ideas and stories and talents worth sharing with others, one requires time and space for oneself. Socialism, or the form of rich individuality that Marx looked to socialism to enable, requires, I believe, the preservation of the possibility of moments of solitude.
III: The Networked Self and Interior Conditions of Rich Individuality
Progressive social struggles protect or reclaim life time and space from the alienating and exploitative structures of capitalist labour markets and the invidious hierarchies that characterise all forms of oppression. Within life time and space thus protected and reclaimed, people are able to access the natural and social resources and forge the sort of mutualistic relationships valuable and valued lives require. The more successful histories of struggle have been, the more life time and space has been reclaimed and protected from alienating, exploiting, and oppressing forces, the more important preservative struggles become. These preservative struggles attain more importance because the more life time and space that has been reclaimed and protected from alienating, exploiting, and oppressing forces, the more human lives become the intrinsically valuable creation of the life-bearers (as opposed to the instrumentally valuable object of social and economic power). Social struggle may thus be understood as a complex interweaving of battles over the control of life time and space, for whomever controls the time and space within which life is led controls life itself.
Battles over life time and space are not always obvious or overt. In fact, the most successful strategy for the capitalist re-colonization of life time and space would be a strategy that its victims not only do not recognise as alienating and oppressive, but rather appears to them as their own work. One might call the realization of such a strategy, (adapting a turn of phrase from Marcuse), “repressive de-alienation.”[19] Marx argued that human beings living in a society that had overcome capitalist contradictions would “contemplate themselves in a world they have created.”[20] The virtual lives and relationships that people create for themselves on-line appear to them as worlds they have created. I suggest, nevertheless, that this de-alienation is repressive, in these two respects: hiding behind the apparently free virtual life time and space is the coercive material power of capitalist market forces, and the forms of individuality encouraged by virtual reality lack the depth interiority substantively valued and valuable forms of individuality require.
Marx looked to techno-scientific development as the fundamental material condition of liberating human life activity from its instrumental domination under capitalism. Techno-science would produce such abundance that necessary labour time would shrink. A class conscious proletariat, seeing the abundance denied it, would organize so as to realize the potential for multifaceted self-creation that capitalism created but could not fulfill. Amongst the many checks on this road to freedom that Marx could not foresee is perhaps the most damning of all: that techno-scientific development could reach a point where it could simultaneously liberate life time and space from and re-capture it for determination by capitalist market forces. That is not to deny that the experience of the reduction of socially average labour time is uneven. It is true, as Massimiliano Tomba points out, that “different temporalities are tied to each other, marking the rhythm of global production. Individual productive arrangements can exploit labour which has higher or lower productivity than that of [globally] socially average labour, which remains, however, the temporality that determines the pace.”[21] The global economy combines radically different actual labour times, with some workers still working in conditions which resemble the early nineteenth century while others enjoy flexible workdays and weeks or at least time outside of paid labour and access to communication networks sufficient to the invention of a virtual identity and life. It is the later form of life that interests me here, because the actuality of such lives demonstrates the possibility of repressive de-alienation, and the possibility of repressive de-alienation emphasises the importance, in conditions of highly developed cyberspace networks, of solitude and material, rather than virtual, connectivity.
Virtual life is, in some essential respects if not all, repressively de-alienating because it does not actually overcome, but is structured by, and in fact extends the hold of, coercive capitalist social forces over, the individuals who feel liberated in their on-line life. Capitalist society replicates itself by growing, and in order to grow it must dominate ever more life time and space. Any moment of life time or space withdrawn from capitalist cycles of work and consuming is, from the standpoint of capitalist labour and consumer markets, wasted. The never ceasing demands to be connected cause a “contraction of the present” in which the self is subject to “increased time pressure, under which one attempts… individually as well as institutionally, to culturally digest the compressed assault of innovation.”[22] The demands exceed the limits of physical possibility. Networked life has made possible and operates according to a global space time in which there is no natural night or day and in which one can always be working, or buying, or both. It is arrayed against all natural limits to production and consumption, including one of the most basic biological necessities of all, the need for sleep. “The large portion of our lives that we spend asleep,” Jonathan Crary argues “freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is the uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by contemporary capitalism.”[23] Networked life does not of course abolish the need for sleep, but it seeks to abolish the desire for sleep by generating the anxiety that one will miss out on something because somewhere someone is uploading some content that one might want to access.[24]
Yet, even as people are led into a war against their own most basic natural life-requirements, they do not feel dominated. Quite the contrary, it is often in on-line life that people feel most in control of their lives, because their on-line identities have a plasticity and playfulness that is often not possible in material social life. While I do not deny the life-value of the playfulness and possibilities for manifold interactions between people who would never otherwise meet, it remains the case that networked life is not completely formless. It is rather shaped by the same forces that shape the material world of labour and commodity markets, and which continue to operate on the virtual self, whether the virtual self is fully conscious of their operation or not. Crary again makes this point well: “The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of electronic exchange. Billions of dollars are spent each year researching how to reduce decision making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation.”[25]
While people feel emancipated from the material forces that cause alienation in material social life, they are in fact being worked upon by those same social forces. More and more of the non-incorporated interior spaces of imagination and reflection are taken over and integrated into only those structures of demand which the established society and value system are competent to satisfy. Marcuse’s postulation of the need for a radically different social order as a condition of rebellion against the established order has neither the time nor the space to develop in such an environment, since it appears that everything desirable is already virtually available.
In order to reproduce itself with as little conflict as possible, society must ensure the internalization of its ruling value system. People are not blank slates, but they are also not born with allegiances to any definite social structure and set of political values. They are born with life-requirements that other people must help fulfill and capacities for imagination which underlie their ability to project satisfying futures for themselves. From the standpoint of the imagination—which, as Bachelard reminds us, “faces the future … as a function of unreality,” which is nevertheless positive in nature.”[26]—the future is that which is not yet but which can be created in reality. The positive function of unreality is to negate the hold of the present and past on our thinking and thus to enable us to foresee and create that which is not yet but could be. To internalise a ruling value system is to import an external limitation on what it is possible to imagine, or to imagine things only in such a way that their material realization does not matter. Once one starts thinking not in terms of what it is possible to imagine oneself becoming but what it is realistic to imagine oneself doing, or—what amounts to the same thing in practical terms—to imagine that one has created something in material reality just because one has introduced content into a network—the liberatory potential of interiority has been compromised. The web seems opposed to this reduction of the possible to the realistic because it appears to be an absolutely open space in which everything is permitted, and the virtual self an emancipated personality.
In fact, Crary argues, networked activity on the web is at least as much about self-monitoring as it is self-expression: “the rhythms of technological consumption are inseparable from the requirements of constant self-administration…The privatization and compartmentalization of life are able to sustain the illusion that one can ‘outwit the system’ and devise a superior system, [but]… in reality there is an imposed an inescapable uniformity to our compulsory labour of self-management.”[27] Even if one could, for a moment, ‘outwit the system,’ the tracking of the eccentric behaviour would be incorporated into the predictive algorithms used by marketers and search engines. Evading incorporation would only enhance the capacity of the economic giants that control the web to incorporate others.
This capacity for self-correction and normalization of the eccentric is the real ideological genius of networked life. It takes two opposed forces—imagination and ruling value system—and makes them disappear into each other. Cyberspace appears to be the ever-unfolding, ever changing objectification of networked imaginations given unrestrained play. On-line, the most staid and banal forms of capitalist life, business and commerce, that which one might expect unconstrained imaginations to reject as suffocatingly conformist, take on the appearance of rebellious iconoclasm but without, alas, ceasing to be business and commerce. “Web culture is the final step,” Lee Siegel argues, “in the long, slow assimilation of subversive values to conventional society. With the advent of the Internet, business culture has now strangely become identified with unlimited mental and spiritual freedom—a freedom once defined by its independence from the commercial realm.”[28] The assimilation of oppositional values by the ruling value system proves once again the powerfully adaptive nature of capitalist society. Assimilation of oppositional values is not, of course, the same as their realization.
In order to understand oppression, alienation, and exploitation, people must feel as though their goals are being impeded by the external social forces. In order to feel one’s goals impeded by external social forces, one must be able to form goals and desire forms of relationship which the given ruling value system cannot realize. If one formulates only such goals and desires only such relationships as are allowed under a given structure of power, then one’s goals and desires will never become a source of political conflict. If the given society permits the realization of all goals and allows the formation of all relationships that are valuable for the self and valued by others, and these goals and relationships give rise to patterns of social action and resource use which are not only sustainable over the open ended future of human existence, but contribute back to the life-sustaining social world forms of labour and interaction which enable others to do the same, then the problems of alienation, exploitation, and oppression would be resolved. But if a ruling value system allows the emergence of a virtual space in which it appears that anything is possible but in reality is monitoring every key stroke for economic and political data that can be used to ensure its own better reproduction, then the radical political implications of the imagination—the capacity to invent interior worlds in comparison with which external worlds can be found wanting—has been incorporated into the reproductive dynamics of the given structure of rule.
When the imagination becomes an object to be mined for the information it can yield about how better to reproduce an alienating, exploiting, and oppressing system, it must become, at the same time, an object of the sorts of preservative political struggles I discussed at the beginning of this section. My argument is not, of course, that cyberspace or virtual networks should be abolished, but rather that people must be wary of identifying their imaginations with their objectifications in virtual life—that something inner be preserved as a space of pure creation. In order to preserve the imagination as a space of pure creation, the individual requires separation and solitude just as much as she requires connection and interaction. As the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr argues, “man is so constituted that he possess an inner world of imagination which is different from, though connected to, the world of external reality. It is the discrepancy between the two worlds which motivates creative imagination. People who realize their creative potential are constantly bridging the gap between inner and outer.”[29]
In order for there to be real creativity, then, there must be both inner and outer, and any force which threatens to collapse the one into the other is a threat to creative self-realization. As Goethe asked, “Why now disturb my quiet elation?/Leave me with my wine alone/with others we seek education/But inspiration on one’s own.”[30] The affirmation of the values of solitude, inspiration, and the distinction between interior and exterior become political when we re-examine them in light of the pervasive alienation of labour in capitalist society.
For most people who work, labour-activity is mindless, deadening, boring, uncreative, performed under the direction of a boss and only in response to an underlying economic and natural necessity. It was against this suffocating alienation of humanity’s world-creating capacity that Marx rebelled. Marx’s deepest and abiding value, that which he believed capitalism most of all violated, was the value of substantive individuality, i.e., of each person as a potentially unique creator and contributor to the collective whole which sustains each and all: “Assume man to be man and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then you can exchange only love for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life.”[31] The development of this real individual life has both external and internal conditions.
Externally, it requires regular and secure access to the basic means of biological life as well as the institutions and relationships through which our human capacities for articulate thought and creative activity develop. Notwithstanding the ubiquity of cybernetic networks, these external conditions are, and remain, material. As Sherry Turkle reminds us, in warning of the one-dimensionality of on-line “communities,” the original meaning of community was “to give amongst each other.”[32] That we must first give amongst each other as material bodies does not, of course, rule out our being able to be given amongst each other as networked selves. What it does serve to remind us of, though, is that material limitations can have contradictory relationships to our goals. On the one hand, material limitations such as are imposed on some groups of people by ruling groups so as to ensure the continued subordination of the deprived are oppressive. But the material limitations imposed on our goals by the general need to ensure that nature retains its life-support capacity, or other people as unique centres of consciousness, experience, and action with their own goals and ideas, are limitations that turn us inward in a life-valuable way. They are those limitations confrontation with which deepens our inner life, by making us realise that not everything we can imagine can be externalized, and that of the things we can externalize, the forms of externalization, in order to be life-serving contributions, must not undermine the life-support capacity of nature or other peoples’ projects and goals.
Hence, the internal conditions of rich individuality require the opposite of that which the external conditions demand. The satisfaction of our life-requirements is all about maintaining connection to other people and life-support systems. Converting the satisfaction of those life-requirements into life-valuable expressions of our capacities requires time apart from others, a deceleration of time, and deliberately imposed constraints on the object of consciousness. All three demands are at odds with the experience of time and content on-line. As David R. Loy argues, “the cyberpresent results from slicing time so thinly that sense of duration disappears, replaced by accelerating speed. Our awareness usually hops from one perch to the other, but now it hops so quickly that the sensation is more like running on an accelerating treadmill. This is possible, however, only because now-moments—our treadmill steps—are denuded of meaningful content.”[33] The rich individuality Marx spoke about, although many-sided, does not try to pay attention to everything and does not create itself by externalizing everything that happens to come to mind.
Marx argues, in the passage from the “Manuscripts” cited above, that real individuals are determinate and limited; they are not capable of everything but must work on themselves to develop the knowledge and form the relationships they desire. Self-creation is not giving voice to every fleeting thought and puerile feeling; it is self-limitation of the most demanding sort; ascesis, giving oneself over to the discipline that commands one’s attention. As Goethe writes of artistic creation: “so too all forming culture needs some tether:/Unbridled spirits end in vain disaster/Pursuing pure perfections elevation./Who wants great things must get himself together/Constraint is where you show yourself the master,/And only law is freedom’s sure foundation.”[34] Not everyone will become an artist of Goethe’s calibre, but of course, that is not the point. Everyone has something to give to the commonwealth of life-capital from which rich individuals must draw. While time and space and solitude might appear like oppressive limitations from the perspective of the on-line restless spirit, contributions worth sharing amongst each other, of whatever form they might take, require them as conditions of their value.
It does not follow from this argument that virtual life should be abolished, any more than it follows from the argument that labour should be abolished because capitalist labour is alienating. What it does do is remind that meaningful creation—the sort that socialism seeks to enable—requires not only inspiration, but the discipline to hold back, to not share everything but only that which is actually valuable and valued by others as real contributions to their own lives as sensing, thinking, and acting beings. Yet, this holding back cannot be merely the act of isolated people, and there must be time and space for them to draw back into. Hence the importance of the preservative struggles that I discussed in Section Two returns. In the context of highly developed capitalist society that which must be preserved is not only air and water and healthy food, forms of solidarity represented by trade unions and cultural groups and social movements, but also life time and space in which people can be alone to think about their real situation, experience themselves both as the object of social forces and as a subject capable of reacting against them, and to imagine different ways of relating, acting, living, and organizing public life.
That these preservative struggles can never attain their goal without transformative struggles goes without saying, for the capitalist search for life space and time to instrumentalize is endless. Nevertheless, that transformative struggles are necessary conditions of preserving that which deserves to be protected does not mean that the preservative moment is not also essential, and even more so in conditions in which transformative struggles are absent. The deep life-ground of historical materialism connects them all and demands not dogmatic adherence to the organizational generalizations of the past but creative openness to the challenges of the future, including the importance of ensuring that older forms of life-valuable sociality and solitude are preserved for the subsequent generations who will need them.
End notes:
[1] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1975, pp. 48-9.
[2] Karl Marx, “Letter to the St. Petersburg Journal Homeland Notes,” The Letters of Karl Marx, Saul. K. Padover, ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall), 1979, p. 321.
[3] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1986, p. 179.
[4] John McMurtry, “Winning the War of the World,” Keynote Lecture, Zeitgeist Conference, University of Toronto, March 15th, 2014, p. 12.
[5] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker, ed., (New York: W.W. Norton), 1978, p. 595.
[6] Marx, The German Ideology, p. 83.
[7] Ibid., p. 69.
[8] Marx, The Letters of Karl Marx, p. 321.
[9] See for example Areil Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics, (London: Zed Books), 1997; John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution, (New York: Monthly Review Press), 2009; Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, (London: Zed Books), 2007.
[10] Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press), 1971, p. 130.
[11] David Camfield, “Theoretical Foundations of an Ant-Racist Queer feminist Historical Materialism,” Critical Sociology, February, 2014, p.7. (accessed, march 23rd, 2014).
[12] For a more detailed discussion of these sets of universal life-requirements than is possible here, see Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life Value, (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press), 2012.
[13] Jeff Noonan, “Free Time as a Condition of a Free Life,” Contemporary Political Theory, 8(4), 2009, pp. 377-393.
[14] Karl Marx, “Foundations for the Critique of Political Economy,” Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 28, (New York: International Publishers), 1986, p.250.
[15] Ibid., p. 251.
[16] Andrew Collier, “Marx and Conservatism,” Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy, Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor, eds., (London: Palgrave MacMillan), 2009, p. 100.
[17] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1969, p.21.
[18] Giuseppe Tassone, “Democracy at a Standstill: The Idea of Democracy as a Dialectic of Theory and Practice,” Critique, 41(1), 2013, p. 90.
[19] The turn of phrase which I am adapting is “repressive desublimation” which Marcuse explores in One-Dimensional Man. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1964, pp. 72-75.
[20] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, (New York: International Publishers), 1975, p. 277.
[21] Massimilaino Tomba, Marx’s Temporalities, (Leiden: Brill), 2013, p. 168.
[22] Hermann Lubbe, “The Contraction of the Present,” High Speed Society, Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman, eds., (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press), 2009.
[23] Johnathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, (London: verso), 2013, p. 10.
[24] As a terrifying example of this relentless time pressure, consider the case of an intern working for the American investment bank Merrill Lynch, who died in the summer of 2013 after working straight for more than 48 hours. “Intern Death Leads to Bank Review,” The Toronto Star, Aug. 24th, 2013, p. A2.
[25] Crary, 24/7, p. 40.
[26] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1969,
[27] Crary, 24/7, p. 46.
[28] Lee Siegel, Against the Machine, (New York: Spiegel and Grau), 2008, p. 34.
[29] Anthony Storr, Solitude, (New York: The Free Press), 1988, p. 69.
[30] Wolfgang Goethe, “Chinese-German Hours and Seasons,” Selected Poems, John Whaley, trans., (London: J.M. Dent), 1998, p. 159.
[31] Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” p. 326.
[32] Sherry Turkel, Alone Together, (New York: Basic Books), 2011, p. 238.
[33] David L. Loy, “Cyberlack,” 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society, Robert Hassan and Robert E. Purser, eds., (Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books), 2007, pp. 207-208.
[34] Goethe, “Art and Nature,” p. 83.
The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012.  More of his work can be found at his website: