Commodification and Post-Naturalism

How much is “The World,” worth to you?

Paterson. Death ed., Chapter 1; Luke, 2019, Chapter 1; Luke 1997, Chapter 3

I asked you to read three pieces this week that together demonstrate and animate the spirit of ecocritiques. We’re diving into ecocritiques as a form of writing and this can often become muddied by the dense resources mobilized to construct one. They often take a piece of the world and subject it to rigorous examination by running it through cultural, social, political and economic frameworks to exhibit connections between that part and its consequences. For example, Luke in Ecocrtitque selects a seemingly benign or culturally accepted organization, The Nature Conservancy, and examines their practices from their marketing and psychodemographic targeting campaigns to their on-the-ground conservation practices. The results of his analysis are informed by both his theoretical and philosophical commitments, as well as his political economic methodology. In this way, his chapters show us a few things: It is important to have philosophical and theoretical commitments not only for site selection, but also to guide the arc of critique; and reflecting on the larger conditions of one’s existence is necessary to construct a global understanding of the self-in-the-world as well as the interconnections that exist as a part of global social infrastructure. I’ll unpack the above as follows: first, I’ll show you why I selected the readings and why they’re helpful for understanding ecocritiques; a discussion of theoretical and methodological selection follows; and third, how we can go from local to global considerations through political economics as an orientation.

Firstly, I selected Paterson’s chapter from the Death reader as a conceptual introduction to a central consideration within political ecology and environmental studies – commodification. The Death reader is a useful book to keep at hand because it can be used as a sort of advanced glossary or encyclopedia for doing environmental politics. The concepts examined throughout the book – an anthology of different authors and experts in the field – are useful depending on the framework you, as an analyst, are adopting. Some concepts work better in some frameworks over others and it is important to understand how different schools of thought deploy their analytic frames within their research. Some schools, for example, emphasize hybridity and interconnections of technology in understanding the social, and the natural; others don’t have a Natural/Social division and favor nature-cultures, or technoculture, or socio-nature as part of their analytic toolbox; still others, like Paterson, prefer language inherited from political economics as a field and see the circulation of things as central to environmental construction.

None of the above is to say that different schools can’t be mixed and matched or that every concept has to pay homage to its origins. Part of the fun of theorizing is coming up with new combinations of terms to help flesh out analyses and give some order to one’s perceptions. My preferences fall in the Neo-Marxist camp and I arrived at these considerations in language and analysis over a period of time and philosophical reflection. My thoughts tend toward thinking about the environment through assemblages, commodities, and technologies and this trifecta points me in the direction of social complexity theory, Marxism, Anarchism, the philosophy of science, philosophy of technology and postphenomenology. These are big terms and there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia article can explain for understanding the traditions and arguments that are behind them. As a general rule, however, one can learn almost anything simply by understanding terms and vocabulary used within the subject of study. One must, of course, strive to be a practitioner of their subjects and this points to different forms of knowledge than simply know-that gleaned from understanding terms and how they operate to produce a theoretical framework. One should cultivate some other forms of knowledge such as do-how – a knowledge of how to do something, or know-how – a form of knowledge concerning the production and impetus of knowledgeable action. Mastering oneself can be done through the practice of self-discipline and it’s important to hear “disciple” in discipline as one cultivates an interest in one’s subject area. 

Rick Roderick delivers a lecture on the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse and the internal contractions of modernity and the modernizing process. If you’re looking for a project for this course, try to identify an irony or a contradiction and dial in on it. More often than not, you’re putting your finger on something that can be eco-critiqued.

 I arrived at Neo-Marxism after nearly a decade of attempting to reject it through more traditional forms of liberal thought. “Liberal,” here does not refer to Democrat, or the largely incorrect and obfuscating left-right distinction one hears from the crypto-fascists on the news. It was Luke’s Chapter 3 on TNC that was the final coffin nail on my largely John Rawls infused philosophical and theoretical orientations. When Luke critiques “liberals,” he’s speaking to a philosophical tradition that has informed the formation of the U.S. and other countries. A rough and ready but all-too violent characterization of liberal and liberalism is one that adopts both a “rule of the people,” as in democracies and representative republics such as our own; as well as “free” market principles and separates (typically) Nature and Society, and Public and Private spheres conceptually and operationally (as in laws and other practices). People from “left” to “right” in the U.S. fit under liberalism as a political discourse whether or not they’re conscious of it, and one can argue that everyone from [some] Democratic Socialists to [some] “free-market” libertarians are types of “liberals” with some misgivings. In many ways, and again this is rather quick, liberalism is concerned with the balance of two ideals that are in tension with one another: definitions of “equality;” and definitions of “freedom.”

Without spending too much time on the fundamental tension in Liberalism, one can readily grasp the arc of the discussion by reflecting on how different definitions of equality and freedom circulate in our society. The tension is exhibited best in how U.S. political discourse circulates representations of freedom. More often than not, they depict definitions of freedom that also seem in tension with one another. The theorist, Isaiah Berlin split “freedom” as a term into at least two operational definitions: freedom-to, or positive freedoms; and freedom-from or negative freedoms. Positive freedoms might be something like the “right to bear arms,” or the right to assemble. If you’re in the UK, or other countries that still have an understanding of society, then you have the freedom to affordable, or tax-funded healthcare. On the flip-side, and they’re often two sides of the same coin, you have the freedom from unlawful search and seizure – at least formally, or the freedom from debtor’s prison – again, probably only formally and we’ll see how this goes when the student debt bubble explodes. 

One can witness the results of how “freedom” is operationalized within the environment by examining the differences in how society delegates and distributes power and capital. Corporations were defined, conceptualized and discussed as people earlier than black slaves and this shows an orientation not only to the notion of people or person but the networks of terms in which they are embedded. Persons are rights-bearing agents in U.S. philosophical and legal frameworks while slaves are regarded as property and are thus subject to rights-bearing agents as objects. This exhibits a tension between “freedom” and “equality” as the states argued over the status of black slaves in the U.S. slave-economies operating across the expanding nation. One can see, rather easily I think, that much of the arguments spun around whether whites had the freedom-to own black slaves, positing a freedom-from Federal intervention that would have slaves recognized as equals formally in U.S. law. Equality, in the above, suffers as a concept and practice under the governing frameworks of slave-states and it isn’t a big leap to understand how a slave-state – say Virginia – had an environment that immobilized the black body and fed it into whole living economies of governance, representation, and commodity production. The fight for “equality” through abolitionism was a fight for slaves to be recognized as people, and not property, and thus become rights-bearing agents capable of exercising “freedom” in any of its forms. Economically, the body of the black slave served as a foundation for slave economies that operated internationally as well as in the United States and the argument over “states rights” can be cashed out as states arguing for the freedom-to own people through an argument for freedom-from Federal regulations and discourses that treated the black slave as an equal, rights-bearing agent. 

The above beares on our readings from this week because Paterson starts us off with commodification – that is, the process that makes something into a tradeable object that has exchange-value – or, a commodity. Notice here that we’re concerned with the process of something becoming a commodity and not the individual commodity itself. In the above, one can think of the black body becoming commodified on the auction blocks in Richmond as buyers bid for slaves. On the flip side, the body of a particular black person within governing frameworks that posit the black body as property is a commodity to a slave master. How commodities circulate and what they are helps focus analyses of society and we can see how society pulls-in what you might call “Nature” through commodification. One can think of this clearly by recognizing that the computer you’re using to view this post is a composite (we’ll use assemblage in this course) of “natural” elements – metals, plastics derived from hydrocarbons, etc., – organized toward some “social” end – communication between peoples, education. The computer, bought and traded as it is, allows or enables this sort of social behavior and thus rethreads the need for “natural resources” – coltan is one to watch – within and through patterns of extraction all connected to the production of that computer. The computer itself is useful in that it amplifies certain desirable abilities over others, but this use-value is conditioned by the social networks that value those abilities. Regardless of who decides what attributes and abilities to value, the computer in your hands, on your desk, or in your lap holds a socially conditioned exchange-value typically represented in monetary denominations that allow for its circulation within and through social networks. 

Think of it this way: money is a social grease. It gets the gears turning and impells actions that might not otherwise be committed. It exercises a coercive and persuasive influence in our social organization and a lot of people – mistakenly – cashout happiness in terms of cash acquisition. It’s a motive force in our environments and many an environ is designed to generate, capture and channel money – just look at Land Grant Universities. Money, however, is nothing but a representation and an abstraction attached to things by people. Those things to which it is attached are commodities and concentrations of money attract and are constitutive of concentrations of things. Think of the material networks necessary for a gold mine to operate – the discovery of gold, the organization of labor to extract it, the machinery to aid in its extraction, the melting and smelting facilities and all the attendant knowledges used in the extraction of gold. All of that activity, the material changes to landscape, the carbon outputs that circulate globally, and the global draw of people and materials to a place – a mine – already shows networks interested in dragging the stuff from the ground so that it can circulate in social environs like New York’s Diamond District as rings, and other material used in the construction of more commodities. 

Luke in his chapter from Ecocritique recognizes a sort of commodification occurring through the conservation actions of The Nature Conservancy. Commodification occurs within circuits (Paterson, Death ed. p.54) and these circuits are assemblages of people, and things that interact to produce objects that are then sold for an abstract representation. This process of commodification contains the process of abstraction that underwrites a notion of equivalence among objects and buyers. This is usually, as we see it now, run through a brand that is used to condition the expectations of consumers. I have been all over the world and have had many excellent coffees but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d be getting if I went to a local coffee shop. Some coffees are terrible – a travesty against God and legumes – and, being the consumer that I am, I try to avoid the terrible ones and buy things that satisfy expectations. I’m usually never in the place unless I’m running late or road tripping but Starbucks can be a welcome sight in a foreign land because they train and regulate their supply-chains according to company procedures to produce a reliable source of caffeine and enjoyment. I don’t know whether I’ll get a good coffee in any particular Starbucks, but generally speaking, I can trust the brand to produce palatable espresso – if but too little in their servings. One can zoom out and see Starbucks traded on the New York Stock Exchange and realize that no one is buying a cup of coffee when they trade the “SBUX” ticker, but “SBUX” has a value relative to the belief that money invested in the company will have a “return-on-investment” much the same way Virginia Tech implores prospective students to consider going into debt in the hope of a good paying job and fulfilling career after graduation [Hint: you’re more commodity than you realize]. 

We’re often so bound up in commodity networks that the notions of “choice+freedom” circulates to an accelerated absurdity. Escaping the commodity nexus of society is often through a rejection of what it means to be a human and a member of society. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting probes one alternative and the notion of “freedom.” What does it mean to be free when all the world is a commodity?

We can see, in the above, that commodification often requires some sort of material input that mixes with labor to produce a tradable object. In the case of Starbucks, I can trust that I’ll get a decent coffee because the brand signifies a particular admixture of labor and resources that are guided through labor practices to produce a Starbucks coffee. In their Pike Place roast, for example, the barista chars the beans before grinding them together with old cigarette butts and hamster-cage newspaper lining before placing them into a coffee urn where nothing but the freshest tap water percolates through the urn and into a cup that is a standardized measurement necessary for grounding a sense of equivalence among particular coffees. Notice that I, as a consumer, am almost nowhere in the above example. I don’t participate in collecting the coffee beans, I don’t know where they’re coming from and I really do nothing but issue a request to the barista and then give them some numbers representing debt owed to me that I’ve accumulated throughout the course of my labor and life. In this way, one can see how commodities and commodity chains produce a sense of distance between consumers, labor and capital as I am typically ignorant of the whole story of the commodity I buy and consume except for its excretion (Paterson, Death, ed. p.54). 

This expose by The Guardian – the only news source trusted by George Orwell – traces slavery through global supply chains of shrimp (prawns in the video). Slavery, the commodification of people and the theft of their lives is still alive and well, and maybe you eat it every day. Unless you do the work, the commodity will never tell you where it comes from.

Notice how Luke applies his theoretical and methodological commitments in his chapter on TNC. He dives into their actual material practices rather than merely their ecological lip service by focusing on a commodity and the network that produces it. He’s thinking about how TNC commodifies land and the processes, and considerations that go into making land tradeable and in that sense, commodities. Again, consider that commodities are a mix of resources and labor that have an exchange value ($3 for 16 ozs of Pike Place, for example), and circulate throughout your environment. Now consider that the land you’re sitting on is a commodity but only insofar as the U.S. government recognizes land as tradeable. This means that land is a potential site of commodity production – as in a gold mine – and a commodity itself – in that we can attach an exchange value for it, and we live within a society that thinks land can be bought, owned and traded. This leads to other quandaries such as fictitious commodities (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56) and the Second Contradiction of Capital (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56-60) but I’ll leave these aside for simpler language. 

Both Paterson and Luke see commodification as central to the reproduction of a particular form of society grounded in liberalism and exhibited through the establishment of markets and circulation of commodities. Their crux is that commodity development and circulation, as practiced, is often ecologically destructive and grounded in notions of abstraction and extraction that complicate and animate social relations and exacerbate and create inequalities through discourses of market “freedom.” However, liberal thinking has generally ignored ecological and environmental damage and degradation within its economic calculi and labels these effects as “market externalities.” Ignorance of externalities is accomplished through the distancing effect that commodities and their circulation have on the perceptive faculties of consumers and reinscribes a sense of accelerated consumption and accumulation of material stuffs that are built from extractive networks. These consumptive patterns are driving (in a sense) the production of ecological destruction and it isn’t until externalities become salient within the environment that attempts at incorporation within economic calculi are made (look at the establishment of Superfund sites). This process already exhibits a relationship to that thing we might call “nature” and already shows you how “nature” and “society” are enmeshed through extractive commodity production. Social demands are and always have “natural” consequences and Luke admonishes TNC for their “conservation” strategy which reinscribes the logic of commodification within the production of the physical environments they’re supposed to protect! 

Look at it this way: Commodities are capital. They can be bought, traded, made, and circulated as a force within and through environments. They are also, according to our authors from this week, central in the production of ecological destruction because they exist and emanate from real material networks of extraction and production. Commodities and commodification are so pervasive that we often talk about ourselves and others as existing within markets – this labor market, or that labor market – and this leads to some unpleasant social consequences like the mistreatment of people, or, as in a previous example, the enslavement of others as commodities! 

We cash our hopes and define freedoms through objects and commodities but is anyone asking whether we should, or what consequences that will have?

All of the above have material effects. We can look for sites of analysis through the commodity as a nexus – a window – into a world that runs on commodification and an environment built by the circulation of things based on perceived values. More often than not, our notions of freedom are cashed out in terms of consumption – in terms that make freedom constitutive of the objects to which it is attached (watch a car commercial as above, and ask what values they’re selling you). Our social structure often includes the language of commodification and exchange!

So, here’s the dirty little secret: Luke might nail TNC for doing the very thing they claim to be preventing – the degradation of lands, waters and airways by commodification and the production of sociality – by commodifying more lands, waters and airways in service to their notions of what “the environment” should be; but commodification is a cornerstone of liberal discourse. It’s often what people turn to when presented with a recalcitrant externality showing itself through our environs. Indeed Luke’s first chapter in Anthropocene Alerts is an alert from 1980 prodding liberal thought and thinkers for not considering commodification as a central problem in “the environment (Luke, 2019, Chapter 1). They slap a technological band-aid (not the actual common term, but a brand name!) on nature’s sucking chest wound and then try to find something to sell – some sort of “market incentive” to attract more capital or make environmental protection palatable to people who can’t understand that clean drinking water is a must for everyone and people other than themselves live in this world and are fighting for their lives every single day. This collective akrasia in evidence points to – alludes – to the presence of the commodity form – a notion of collective consciousness that sees the commodity as the omnipresent model of society and social relationships (Paterson, Death, ed., p.54). If you’re paying attention, this means that the commodity form also quietly regulates conduct toward the environment and its construction. In other words, the commodity makes the machines we call societies run and are simultaneously its output creating a self-repeating system of extraction and expansion. One only needs to consider carbon markets discussed by Paterson, The Nature Conservancy’s trade lands discussed by Luke, or habitat credit swaps discussed by yours truly, to see the presence of the commodity form and its psychic and material effects.

Chozen’s “Tel A Lie Vision” talks about the circulation of commodities, of desires represented through a system reliant on passive viewership and active consumption. Here we can hear the circulation of commodities as a system of governance.

When all the world is processed, what will Nature be? If everything can be commodified and turned into capital, then where is Nature now? These questions should help you come to an understanding of the world we live in when you consider that Nature is dead and we have killed her.