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The Underground Challenge: Raw Materials, Energy, the World-Economy and Anti-Capitalism

Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age by Bruce Podobnik, and Globalization and the Race for Resources by Stephen Bunker and Paul Ciccantell are two incredibly timely, highly informed and analytically sharp analyses of both raw materials and energy, within a wider, and importantly, long-term analysis of the capitalist world-system as a whole and the conflicts, hierarchies and inequalities that are inherent to its functioning.

From the oil workers of Iraq, to the wood-fuelled kitchens of India, to the stranded in New Orleans, to Black communities of Colombia, to the gas fields of Bolivia, and the electricity consumers in Soweto, to the displaced millions of Narmada and Three Gorges, to the unregulated Chinese coal miners dying in explosions, to the Native Americans whose reproductive health is threatened by uranium extraction in Shoshone, to the iron mines of the Amazon. Increasingly, raw materials and energy are becoming important sites of conflict, and in all likelihood, such trends will continue to intensify in the near future. They are conflicts in which the artificialness and futility of attempting to separate analysis of local, regional, national and global dynamics from one another becomes glaringly obvious. Control of raw materials and energy is a crucial precondition to capitalist production and reproduction.Arguably, it is just as crucial to any non-capitalist production and reproduction of livelihoods, and as such it should come as no surprise that communities and organizations struggling over such issues are often in the fore-front of contemporary global networks of anti-capitalist, or anti-neo-liberal resistance, such as Peoples’ Global Action, World Social Forum or Via Campesina.

Although neither of the two books reviewed here are coming from explicitly anarchist, or even anti-authoritarian, perspectives, they nonetheless are probably the most explicitly useful and politically sympathetic books of any that have been written till now for anyone who is coming from such perspectives in terms of providing the tools, concepts and historical background to grapple with the issue of world energy and raw materials politics. It is rare that analyses of either energy or raw materials are situated in such a wider understanding of capitalism as a systemic whole, rather than reducing the discussion of raw materials of energy to fairly sterile and technocratic single issue analysis. Not only are such books rare, but also extremely refreshing.

Of vital importance, both books show that such conflicts in these highly profitable sectors are not at all new, but have in fact been occurring in different guises for the last several hundred years, and have actually played a vital role in shaping the capitalist world-system and the globally reaching social relationships which define it and are defined by it. While this may perhaps seem obvious, the intertwined histories of energy and raw materials struggles and capitalism has never actually been told before in such all encompassing ways as these books achieve. The analyses are rooted in attempts to understand how the system has developed over the last few centuries, emphasizing relationality in order to understand its hierarchically organized interstate system and world-wide division of labor, and the crucial structural role played by energy and raw materials access in terms of both shaping and being shaped by these conflictual relationships, and their fundamental importance in satisfying capitalism’s overarching and overriding need for ceaseless accumulation and expansion. Both books are clearly aimed at understanding the present from a world-historical perspective in order to help strategize for collective intervention aimed at shaping the future, on the one hand in terms of facilitating an accelerated transition to a sustainable energy regime at the global level, and on the other to contribute to lessening the social inequalities and ecological destruction inherent in the production, trade and consumption of global extractive industries, such as iron ore.

Fundamentally, both books stem from a materialist analysis, rather than an ethical or political one (which is not to say both books are not highly ethical and concerned with social and ecological justice, they are). They situate the importance of material “stuff” as the prerequisite without which not much else happens. In other words, they analyze the coal, oil, windmills, rubber, wood, steel, road and shipping networks, the ports, boats and cars, that provide the basis of our productive systems, transport, food production, trade, etc, so essential to everyday life, not to mention their absolute necessity for more destructive processes such as war. Yet, unlike other more popular accounts of resource depletion, “peak oil” and limits to growth, despite being materially rooted, and despite in passing warning of dangers of catastrophic global military conflicts, neither book has been lured into hysterically prophesizing scenarios of apocalyptic doom in which the world runs out of resources and rapidly collapses into a big heap of shit. Both also squarely debunk the dangerously Eurocentric myth of a “dematerial” or “disindustrialized” economy. The authors have taken the time to be intellectually rigorous, coming to more sober conclusions that pose major questions to those of us who believe that the world around us is constructed through conscious human action, choice and above all struggle, as opposed to fate.

Through their exploration of specific material products, namely energy resources and raw materials, both books engage with a number of concepts that are fundamental for an understanding of both systemic dynamics and anti-systemic resistance. To name but a few, these include discussion of ownership of means of production, large productive and transportation infrastructure, and the prerequisites of means to production to be able to operate (i.e. energy and raw materials), competition, the building and maintenance of global market structures and trade relations, unequal exchange, uneven development terms of trade, pricing mechanisms in the world market, organic composition of capital, commodity chains, exchange value, use value, ground rent, financial flows, expanded reproduction, world-wide division of labor, hegemonic cycles and rivalry and war.

Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age by Bruce Podobnik offers a cautiously optimistic account of the possibilities for an accelerated and far reaching shift away from fossil fuels (especially oil) and nuclear towards a sustainable global energy regime. This highly convincing argument is based on a historical analysis of past global energy shifts, notably from wood to coal, coal to oil, and oil to…In the past such shifts occurred in an unexpected, rapid and non-linear manner in moments of world-wide crisis. The book concludes that that the current period of systemic chaos and turbulence resulting from declining US hegemony is a period with many similarities to past periods in which such transformative shifts occurred, and that there are many reasons to believe (though no certainty) that such a rapid and far-reaching shift may be possible again. Three fundamental axes of conflict are identified as having combined in such a way as to have brought about previous changes in the global energy regime. These are a) intensification of inter-state conflict, especially periods of hegemonic rivalry and war, with conflict over access to energy resources playing an important role, b) intensification of inter-firm competition and concentration within the energy sector, c) labor and other social conflict within the energy sector. All of these dynamics – interstate rivalry, inter-firm competition and social/labor unrest intensify and weaken in a cyclical manner. In isolation, none of these factors have been sufficient to bring about global energy shifts, but in moments of world-crisis such factors have all intensified together and reinforced one another. It is this convergence of distinct dynamics that has contributed to undermining the stability and profitability of the previous energy regime, whilst at the same times creating the conditions for a new energy regime to grow up slowly in the background, for technology, production, infrastructure and markets to be built up gradually so as to be ready to very quickly become the dominant energy source when the final crisis in the existing energy sector hit.

His analysis is situated within an analysis of hegemonic cycles, defined by the time period of the rise of British hegemony through the post second world-war period of US hegemony, to its current period of decline. Especially important was the boost given to British industrialization through coal (both in terms of increasing productive and transport capacities, and also in terms of creating markets for other goods, such as the steam engine etc, whilst simultaneously industrialization created an expanding global market for coal as well as expanding global coal production.). However, with waning British hegemony, came increasing conflict in coal sector. Such conflict profoundly undermined the stability and profitability of coal. This included high levels of worker militancy in the mines, due to the fact that the industry is a highly strategic one in which disruption cannot but cause major disruption elsewhere in the economy. Access to coal resources played an important part in Napoleonic Wars, the Franco Prussian War in the late 19th Century, and even more so in the First World-War and post war reparations program. Also, the sector experienced greatly intensified competition and concentration. Since its discovery in the mid 19th Century, oil had been slowly preparing in background, building up its technology and infrastructural base, its reliability, its ability to attract investment capital and, above all, a market. When the coal market finally became too unstable, oil very quickly replaced it as the dominant global energy source (though the use of coal continued to expand nonetheless, though at a lesser rate than oil).

In turn, the twin giants of oil and the automobile gave important impetus to US hegemony, importantly enabling a great reduction in the costs of reproducing labor, a factor which was essential for the construction of the post-Second World-War Keynesian social pacts which relied on the ability to provide cheap food, heating, transport, consumer goods etc. to workers in the capitalist core. However, declining US hegemony, struggle in petroleum sector (mainly nationalizations, but also workers’ struggles, Middle East wars), and increasing competition and mergers also created instability in this sector. From the first “Oil Crisis”, the oil sector has started to show cracks, with increased attention being paid to sustainable energy and also nuclear energy. Both sectors have been preparing in the background, and are now in a position to leap forward to greater prominence. And, in the context of ever greater military conflict and chaos in the Middle East, a nearing of the limits of petrol resources world-wide, and an urgent threat of climate change, the necessity to move beyond oil is increasingly creating the conditions to do so, though a sustainable energy regime will not emerge without conflict, strong organization and cooperation. Podobnik rejects that nuclear energy is either desirable or possible on a big scale.

The main argument drawn from all of this is that the current period in which US hegemony is declining and inter-state rivalry is reemerging as an important factor, actually offers incredibly optimistic conditions for accelerating and collectively planning a rapid transition away from oil (at least, that is, if we do not have another global war). Importantly, he points to the major role that labor in countries such as China, or Brazil may play in leading the shift to renewable energies, if governments in these countries choose to invest in such production. It is up to governments, corporations and communities world-wide to mobilize for a globally coordinated and planned transition to a sustainable energy regime. Just as in the past global energy shifts have not been exclusively limited to resource depletion or to the physical suitability of certain fuels, neither should discussion about any future transition be limited to a resource determinist framework, nor a simple discussion of resource depletion, but rather should pose human agency, political will and struggle at the center of strategizing for such a transition. This is not to deny the significance of resource depletion, which is at a more advanced stage than ever before.

One important weakness stands out. The implication is that large sectors of capital are likely to turn against fossil fuels in favor of renewable energies in the near future. This means that renewable energies will no longer be “alternative” and “oppositional”. This poses the vital, but unasked, question as to who will pay the costs of the global energy shift? Capital or labor? Core or periphery countries and regions? Men or women? No questions are raised as to the new forms of colonialism which may emerge if the North decides to import renewable energy resources from the South. An example of this is the displacement and paramilitary repression and murder of Black communities in Colombia for the monoculture production of African Palm which can be used as fuel oil in core capitalist countries. Podobnik acknowledges the fact that the book contains very little discussion of non-commercial energy, but fails to acknowledge the importance of this omission. There is no discussion of the tension between use value and exchange value, and efforts to break the logic of exchange value which may have occurred in the past. We are left quite informed about struggles of workers within the energy sector, but it remains an open question as to whether there have been possible hidden struggles for decommodification of energy resources in the past. Yet, this tension between production for use and production for the market is at the heart of contemporary struggles. Common or public energy resources, from forests to oil fields, are facing increasing privatization, and energy markets are being liberalized world-wide through regional and multilateral free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, FTAA, EU, or WTO. This is generating an enormous amount of (globally networked) social struggle.

Whereas Podobnik’s book is a book about energy, within the context of the world-system, Globalization and the Race for Resources by Stephen Bunker and Paul Ciccantell had a different emphasis. The book is about how the globalization of the world-system has been driven forward by the ongoing (and accelerating) struggle for control of raw materials. The book, which was narrowly completed before Stephen Bunker’s death, uses a material and spatial perspective (referred to as “new historical materialism”) to trace how local resource endowments have shaped global trade, financial flows and political instruments, and vice versa, over the last six hundred years of capitalist expansion. The analysis builds on the uncompromising assertion that the laws of physics and nature are universal and immutable, and that human activity acts within the constraints set by these laws. The myths of a deterritorialized and dematerialized economy in which national states have become irrelevant are both successfully attacked, affirming that processes of globalization and the expanded reproduction of capital are still deeply rooted in place and require the active participation of nation states, especially the most powerful core states, and increasing consumption of material resources.

The book starts with a description of how the largest iron ore mine in the world opened in 1985, in Carajas, Brazil. The project, which was heavily based on technological advances in the core, required a global mobilization effort to secure financing and political cooperation. Japan had encouraged this mine, as part of an undeclared struggle with the USA for trade supremacy, a struggle which depended on guaranteeing access to raw materials, in this case iron ore. From this contemporary vantage point, the book then backtracks to construct a conceptually innovative interpretation of hegemonic cycles. This entails a history of how different national economies have secured their trade dominance over the last six hundred years — Portugal, Holland, Britain, the USA and Japan in succession — through acquiring access to raw materials in ever greater quantities and from ever more distant places. Crucially, the processes of globalization have been driven as much from below by the local specificities of where resources have been found as by the world-system as a whole from above. Rather than talking about hegemonic cycles in a mechanistic way, the authors instead Transformations have been sequential and cyclic, yet at the same time cumulative and reiterative, in which both the parts and the whole have a mutually constitutive role and limit and constrain each other.

Particular physical resources, such as wood, rubber, iron, coal, or oil, do not occur evenly throughout the world, but are located in specific locations. Some are very rare, others more common. This means that highly specific geographical location of particular raw materials plays a crucial role in shaping global processes, including trade routes, the shipping sector, financial flows. As local resources are exhausted, ever more distant resources need to be exploited. Transportation over increased distances only becomes possible through enormous economies of scale in the transportation sector (through increased size and efficiency), yet this requires ever greater volumes of material, which in turn have to be extracted from ever further afield. Diseconomies of space lead to economies of scale, leading to further diseconomies of space. Not only do these processes require ever greater volumes of increasingly high quality physical materials, they also require ever greater technical, financial and political resources, as well as increasingly dense and close collaboration between nation states, firms, and financial institutions.

In order to secure access to raw materials there has been a constant need to go beyond previous methods in securing access. Transport technologies have developed from the use of the oar, sail and raft, to coal powered steamboats and rail, to petroleum super tankers. Similarly, technological improvements have generated a need for increasing quality, purity and specificity of raw materials, often further exacerbating the need for transporting it even greater distances. Furthermore, the financial costs have greatly increased, demanding ever more complex financial mobilization mechanisms, from the support of wealthy families in Venice and Genoa, through to national banks and exchanges, to stock exchanges to multilateral development banks. Related to this, core states have gained strength, in order to be able to bring together ever greater numbers of competing capitals in a cooperative process with one another.

A world-wide division of labor in which production in core regions depends on extraction in periphery regions is a division of labor which tends towards increasing specialization, polarization and uneven development. The productive economy gains national ascendancy and trade dominance, whereas the extractive economy is vulnerable to the whims of market and falls in world-prices. This often means that such regions often produce beyond their capacity, over shooting the limits of their material base. The result is extreme ecological degradation and very poor labor conditions. On the other hand, the handful of companies engaged in extraction gain enormous political power within the locality where the extraction occurs, thus undermining local political autonomy. Two forms of inequality grow up in parallel. One is internal to the region where extraction takes place, between the local population and the company. The other is external, between the states in extractive regions and in productive regions and the world market more generally. Such inequalities are inherent to a global division of labor based on extraction and production, where some regions consume and others produce to feed that consumption.

Legitimation, mystification and manipulation are important factors here. State political elites in extractive regions are seduced by the allure of development based on extraction, yet repeatedly such development fails to occur. These states play a complicit role, together with companies in the raw materials sector and core states, ensuring that the discourse of modernity is hegemonic and is able to silence local objections. The ideological pressures are so intense and successful that many times the extractive regions are even encouraged to bear the financial burden for the extraction.

Yet, with each successive round in which a nation state has gained trade dominance in through securing its supply of raw materials, the process has become cumulatively more difficult, as described above. Each round of territorial and spatial expansion and intensification of resource use accelerates the approaching of spatial, material limits and ecological limits. It can be no other way in a system based upon continually expanded material consumption to fuel endless accumulation. Competition is becoming increasingly fierce, and old forms of competition between nation states are also reaching their limits.

As the spatial and material limits of accumulation are approached, there is increasing danger not only of irreversible ecological destruction but also of ever more dangerous military conflicts between core powers. The conclusions the authors draw from all of this is the urgent need for cooperation and alliances between consumers of raw materials in core countries and producers of such materials in periphery countries in order to reduce the social inequalities and ecological destruction inherent in global extractive industries. Furthermore, there is an urgent long-term need to go beyond a social system based on accelerated material intensification and spatial expansion.

In practical terms, they call on people and states to confront free trade agreements and to construct international cartels. Such cartels would significantly raise the price of global raw materials commodities, thus simultaneously reducing consumption and ensuring a fairer deal for the extractive economies. A crucial part of this is the sharing of information and construction of global networks between civil society (and states) in both consumer countries and extractive economies. Such information would flows are necessary in order to undertake the difficult process of delegitimizing the appeal of development based on extractive economies in the regions where extraction occurs, as well as raising awareness in core countries about the high social and ecological costs of extractive based production, where the connections between these costs and high levels of consumption are still largely invisible. There is a special appeal for social scientists to commit themselves to this process of information sharing and analysis.

There are a number of unanswered questions too. Importantly, there is no discussion of how cartels might succeed now whereas they didn’t in the past, specifically with the very similar proposals embodied in the calls for a New International Economic Order based around cartels. At that time, the only successfully established cartel was OPEC. There is little discussion of how it could be implemented and by whom. Another unanswered thread is what kind of labor struggles have occurred within the raw materials sectors over the last 6 hundred years, and what role these struggles might have in future struggles. Finally, it is also worth mentioning that there is very little discussion about China, though the authors have addressed this in a shorter article that was published at around the same time.

Perhaps surprisingly for such well informed and politically sympathetic books, both books show very little awareness, or at least engagement, with the existence of global anti-capitalist and/or anti-neoliberal networks, such as Peoples’ Global Action, World Social Forum or Via Campesina (although both do show some limited awareness about transnational networking of struggles). While highly critical of capitalism as a social system, their suggestions and proposals are nonetheless quite limited to imagining reforms within the context of the existing social relations. Furthermore, neither of them have a critique of the state form itself, and actually appeal to nation states (in the core and periphery alike) to implement certain reforms, failing to acknowledge that it is precisely these states, in alliance with capital, which have contributed over the last several hundred years to precisely the problems which the books so eloquently outline. This latter clearly has no easy answers, but the question is not even posed to start with.

These books throw up a number of important challenges to anti-authoritarian anti-capitalist resistance, and perhaps especially for resistance that attempts to transcend the nation state form in the long run. How might we create solidary and collective forms of production, use and ownership of raw materials and energy that do not rely on either the state or private control? Similarly, what might we advocate as non-state based alternatives to cartels? How are prices set in the world market? Is a non-capitalist market desirable? If so, is it possible? What possibilities for convergence exist between globally orientated struggles for renewable energies and global anti-capitalist struggles? What strategic role could workers in these sectors and affected communities have in such convergence processes? What might the role of private business be in facilitating a transition to renewable energies, and role might oil workers be able to play in such a transition? Do strategic alliances make sense, or are the compromises and contradictions entailed too great? Last, but not least, where are points of weakness and disruption in the global circuits of production and exchange in such strategic sectors as energy and raw materials? Can international anti-capitalist networks be used for the purpose of globally coordinated disruption in these precious circuits? [1]

Yet, unfortunately, such materialist concepts and questions as have been raised by these two books are often quite unfamiliar topics for anarchists and anti-authoritarians, both activists and writers alike [2]. Perhaps, at the risk of being crudely oversimplistic, this is due to a sweeping (and often uninformed) rejection of materialism as being “Marxist”and “Marxism” as being authoritarian, hence leading to an overemphasis on political and ethical dimensions at the expense of an understanding of material reality. Yet, if anti-authoritarian practices are unable to grapple with such material questions, we run the risk of becoming simply an ethically benign, but basically irrelevant, set of aesthetic wanderings. As such, it is up to anti-authoritarians, and especially those active in global networks, to seriously take up the challenges thrown down by these two books. Are we ready for the Underground Challenge of Raw Materials and Energy?

[1] An excellent conceptual discussion of how circuits of capital accumulation is vulnerable to autonomous self-organized resistance is provided in "Marx’s Theory of Crisis as a Theory of Class Struggle." Available in The Commoner Autumn 2002 here (originally published in Research in Political Economy, Vol.5 1982. The book reads particularly well in conjunction with the two reviewed here.

[2] One of the very few overtly anarchist authors to deal explicitly with these issues is Abraham Guillem, in Economia Autogestionaria and Economia Libertaria. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge neither have been translated into English, and furthermore both are slightly dated, since they were written prior to the break up of the Soviet Bloc and the (re)emergence of global anti-capitalist networks.


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