Primitive Accumulation, Negative Externalities and Growth

Over the years, Stefano Bartolini has modeled economic growth, showing that whereas most models of economic growth feature accumulation and technical progress as engines of growth, a third engine is needed to ensure self-perpetuating economic growth. History, the theory of Polanyi & Hirsch, and Bartolini’s models suggest that third engine is 2 negative externalities that combine to drive growth: 1) positional externalities, and 2) externalities that reduce social and natural capital.

Pagano 1999 defined a positional good: consumption by an individual of a positive amount of a positional good involves the consumption of an equal negative amount by someone else. Power and status are fundamental positional goods; others include education and housing.  The positional goods/services/externalities theoretical tradition extends from Veblen 1899/1934 and Hirsh 1976. In addition to Bartolini, Robert H. Frank (“Falling Behind”) has continued to explore this tradition as well as Bowles and Park 2002, Schor 1998, and Corneo and Jeanne 2001.

“Industrial revolutions are the paradigmatic example of this (Growth as Substitution) mechanism: they are the most striking processes of labor supply and accumulation increase because they are the most striking processes of social and environmental devastation recorded by economic history” (Stefano Bartolini, “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth.” 2003: 9).

Williamson 1995, Krugman 1995, and Bartolini et al have shown that the transition to an industrial economy has always been associated with explosive growth in the labor force participation rate.

Such growth-propelling negative externalities are discussed within the Marxist tradition as primitive accumulation. To further explore: The relationship between primitive accumulation and other capitalist strategies of promoting profit-restoring growth to the point of increasing contradiction / social and environmental irrationality.

Bartolini’s growth-model can better explain the failure of conservative economics’ predicted relationship between growth and happiness (Bartolini 2003). Inter alia, political scientist Lane 2000 shows that American growth is not associated with increased happiness.

We Belong

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. 

When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. 

Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists (only) in the fact that we have the (modest, potential) advantage over all other creatures of being able (given a responsive social structure) to learn its laws and apply them correctly” 

Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876). My emphases and modifications.

Crisis is based in Maldistribution

In “Celebrating Consumption,” Sasha Lilley (“Against the Grain”) interviews (and clarifies) economic historian and “residual marxist” James Livingston’s study of the structural problems of capitalism.

Lilley’s clarifications are integral to this discussion, because Livingston’s project seems to be taking Marxism and rebranding it and making it palatable to Cold War-scarred, pro-capitalist and Judeo-Christian Americans. While this ambition I think creates problems in his diagnosis, on the other hand, it must be said that Dr. Livingston nonetheless seems to be a remarkably gracious gentleman and a scholar. For now, I think it would be unsporting to begrudge him his reframing experiments.

Private investment is not key to productivity or growth in capitalism


Private investment is not historically key to increasing productivity, to growth in the US.
Private investment has been atrophying since 1910.
What has increasingly promoted growth is consumer spending, government spending (officially classified as investment), residential investment.

Against Brenner, the problem with the decline of manufacturing in the US is not the loss of productivity, but the loss of wages and unions, leading to the maldistribution of income and wealth.

In view of the historical evidence (private investment atrophy), what happens when we drop the assumption that private investment is key to growth? What kinds of policies can we work on that move us out of crisis mode?

Livingston’s use value-exchange value discussion (TBD)

To get to innovative policy formation, we need to address a cultural block. Livingston: to advance structural development, we have to address the moral question. We need to move from attaching income to waged work to attaching it to need. The cultural revolution Livingston advocates: Making things should not be so important. “People deserve an income that allows for a decent, humane life, that allows for freedom, mobility, dignity.”

Lilley points out that that’s communist (From each according to her abilities to each according her needs). Livingston would prefer to identify this value as historical religious culture.

Livingston observes that crisis arises in capitalism as we socialize risk but let the 1% decide everything. Where bankers won’t invest, we need to socialize our ability to use the tremendous store of wealth.

Toward market socialism: We collectively decide, will this investment create the kind of jobs that afford everyone a decent, humane and dignified life? Use value re-enters politics.

Talk About Repression: Weber! Nietzsche! Freud! Anybody but M__x!

Crises are problems internal to the economic structure. According to Livingston, the problem is the distribution of income. There is too much surplus capital. Crisis is not a problem of money, monopoly, the Fed’s choices, or morality.

Why do Americans lean so heavily on the morality explanation? Livingston follows Weber, blaming this dependence, this urge to personify the cause of crisis, on the Protestant ethic. But the Weberian approach plays a larger role in Livingston’s explanatory scheme. Repressive protestant culture is the cause of, or primary impediment to Americans’ inability to switch out of crisis-prone economic relations to a more rational, constructive grasp of work and wealth distribution.
What can replace Protestant repression?, he asks. What can transform our characters? His overdetermined answer is a more libidinal culture. Livingston wants to start by valorizing the libidinal culture that currently exists–as is promulgated by advertising and consumer culture.
However, empirically, it’s very hard to say that such libidinal culture hasn’t been emphatically encouraged and harvested–and we have the austerity agenda. If Livingston is attempting a reframing experiment, I fail to understand the strategy in that I fail to understand how a political historian’s weight can modify the trajectory of the great mass of marketeers’ raison d’etre. Consumer spending and advertising have been dominant cultural institutions (See Michael Dawson’s The Consumer Trap.), and they have not freed us from Protestant repression–and I doubt they can be hitched to anti-austerity. I would argue that is because repression and libidinal excess are two sides of the same coin, capitalist culture in dialectic. They do not exclude one another. They constitute each other as two ends of a cultural teeter totter. But it’s possible there’s a strategic grappling hook in there.

Here is Ehrenreich’s alternative theory on what needs changing in US culture (elite belief in and reification of a “culture of poverty”)…that I think could get us to a rational approach to work and distributive justice. (It also contains of story of how neoliberalization happens to good socialists who just want to be heard…but at what a price.)

2nd part of Livingston’s book: It kind of goes off the rails

It is Livingston’s market-aficionado thesis that commercial culture is liberatory and solidaristic. Commercial culture is disfigured utopia, but tells us that after work is when we become unalienated, and advertising reminds us of that. Livingston feels that this is culturally important because work should not define us. Basically, commercial culture, he feels, can lead to libidinal liberation.

Lilley reminds us that advertising touching on and co-opting desires isn’t the same thing as unleashing desires. We can contrast Livingston’s capitalist dichotomy, ascetic Protestantism / libidinal carnival, to Marxist Epicureanism. Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is much, much better than Livingston on the psycho-social / cultural theory of work and making. Perhaps because she’s not afraid of M__x.

Purchasing commodities is social, Livingston insists.

Citing consumer movements, Livingston argues that consumption does not negatively impact the environment. If consumers have requisite income, then they reduce their footprint (modified Bruntland argument). That is not a strong argument, see Jevon’s Paradox, ecological footprint/slaves analyses. I don’t know why anti-austerity should entail abandoning the headway the Left has gotten from Red-Green coalition-building.  That seems unstrategic.

Another Anglo Fabian in want of a Marxist backbone?

Livingston’s arguments can at times seem to be overblown sophistry or excessively solicitous of current hegemons. But he’s trying to do interesting things, seeing ways of looking at capitalism’s problem institutions (the capitalist Protestant Ethic abstemiousness/libidinal commodity consumption–which he doesn’t recognize as intertwined) as potential sites of market socialist development. I think though that James Livingston would be more effective if he re-read Scarry, picked up Dawson, checked out Epicurean ethics, and if he engaged Sasha Lilley as his co-author.

…Or maybe I just need to write an article on the Marxist approach to making / unmaking, production and consumption, as an alternative to the austerity dogma. Eureka.

“Such discrete, theoretically-unintegrated critical impulses attacked the irrationality and inhumanity of capitalism. The common aim was to reform it piecemeal into a more rational and human social order in which inequalitites of wealth and incomes would be drastically reduced and democratic rights extended and substantiated, and in which the still-marginalised and -alienated working class would be integrated into the political system. In a(n Anglo) cultural landscape dominated by laissez-faire Liberalism, these concerns made a shift from individualist to collectivist thought a ‘necessary intellectual adjustment’ on the part of the more socially conscious liberal intellectuals. This was the common temper of the New Liberals as well as the Fabians” (Desai 1994: 47, describing the conservative Anglo inteligensia’s tepid and temporary “radicalization” to Fabianism in response to working class disruption).

Nuclear USA

Nuclear facilities in the US, courtesy Mother Jones.

Otsuka Norikazu, a Japanese TV newscaster, devoted himself to the national public campaign, “Let’s support North Japan by eating their food,” often eating radioactive food from the north in television broadcasts.

Norikazu was committed to a hospital for acute lymphatic leukemia on November 7, 2011.

Grimly proving once again: Matter over marketing.

Overcoming Denialism

John Bellamy Foster
“Occupy Denialism: Toward Ecological & Social Revolution”
MRZine 11/11/11

All of us here today, along with countless others around the world, are currently engaged in the collective struggle to save the planet as a place of habitation for humanity and innumerable other species. The environmental movement has grown leaps and bounds in the last fifty years. But we need to recognize that despite our increasing numbers we are losing the battle, if not the war, for the future of the earth. Our worst enemy is denialism: not just the outright denial of climate-change skeptics, but also the far more dangerous denial — often found amongst environmentalists themselves — of capitalism’s role in the accumulation of ecological catastrophe.1

 Recently, climate scientists, writing in leading scientific journals, have developed a way of addressing the extreme nature of the climate crisis, focusing on irreversible change and the trillionth ton of carbon. Central to the scientific consensus on climate change today is the finding that a rise in global temperature by 2° C (3.6° F), associated with an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm), represents a critical tipping point, irreversible in anything like human-time frames. Climate models show that if we were to reach that point feedback mechanisms would likely set in, and society would no longer be able to prevent the climate catastrophe from developing further out of our control.

 Even if we were completely to cease burning fossil fuels when global average temperature had risen by 2° C, climate change and its catastrophic effects would still be present in the year 3000. In other words, avoiding an increase in global average temperatures of 2° C, 450 ppm is crucial because it constitutes a point of no return. Once we get to that point, we will no longer be able to return, even in a millennium, to the Holocene conditions under which human civilization developed over the last 12,000 years.

 Many of you are aware that long-term stabilization of the climate requires that we target 350 ppm, not 450 ppm. But 450 ppm remains significant, since it represents the planetary equivalent of cutting down the last palm tree on Easter Island.2. It is here that the trillionth ton enters in. In the last couple of years, climate studies have determined that once we emit the trillionth metric ton of carbon — counting all the carbon put into the atmosphere since 1750 — we will have exhausted our cumulative carbon budget. This means that if we burn no more than the trillion ton of carbon we will still have a reasonable chance (though this may not in fact be much more than 50-50) of not exceeding the 2° C, 450 ppm boundary. The trillionth ton of carbon is thus viewed as an absolute cutoff.

 Growing scientific evidence, however, suggests that it is essential to remain below the 2° C, 450 ppm level. Consequently, some prominent climate scientists, such as Myles Allen at the University of Oxford, have stipulated that we need to target 750 billion tons of carbon as the limit, which will give us a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase in global average temperature.

 How far are we from emitting the 750 billion — or even the trillionth — ton? Since 1750, we have emitted 550 billion tons of carbon and the rate is accelerating. If present emission trends continue, we will reach the 750 billionth ton of carbon in 2028, that is, in sixteen years. In order to avoid emitting the 750 billionth ton by 2050 we will need to reduce our global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent annually. In order not to emit the trillionth ton of carbon by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions would have to drop by 2.4 percent per year. This is much greater than the 1.5 percent drop in global carbon dioxide emissions, resulting from the Great Recession in 2008-2009. The longer we wait to make the reductions the steeper the decline required. Another way of putting this is that if we burn even half of today’s proven, economically accessible reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, we will almost certainly reach/exceed the irreversible 2° C, 450 ppm, boundary. If we want a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase, we have to lock up all but a quarter of today’s proven economically accessible fossil-fuel resources.3

 If all of this were not enough, climate change is only one of the rifts in planetary boundaries that scientists are now pointing to: the others include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, species extinction, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land cover loss, freshwater shortages, (less certainly at present) aerosol loading, and chemical proliferation. Each of these has the potential of disrupting the global environmental order on catastrophic levels, and the trends for each (with the possible exception of ozone depletion) are presently a source of concern. Already we have crossed three planetary boundaries: climate change, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and species extinction.

Faced with such enormous environmental problems and the need for massive, urgent changes in society, our worst enemy, as I have indicated, is denialism. Here it is useful to look at what I call the “three stages of denial” with respect to the global environmental crisis.5

 The first stage of denial is straightforward. It is the denial associated with Exxon-Mobil and climate skeptics — who say either that there is no such thing as climate change or that it is not caused by human actions. Sometimes they contradict themselves and argue both at once. This of course is the inevitable response of capital, which is invariably concerned, first and foremost, with protecting its bottom line — even at the expense of the earth itself.

 The second stage of denial — often advanced by self-designated environmentalists themselves — is to admit that there is a problem, and even to factor in the proximate causes. Most of you are no doubt familiar with the environmental impact or IPAT formula. Environmental Impact = Population X Affluence X Technology. This is a mere truism, where the drivers of environmental impacts are concerned. It frequently leads to the notion that the solution is a simple matter of promoting sustainable population, sustainable consumption, and sustainable technology. Nevertheless, this conception doesn’t actually take us very far, since we then need to explain what drives population, consumption, and technology themselves. In fact, such multiple-factor analysis is all too often used as a way of denying the underlying background condition: the capitalist treadmill of production.6

 The third stage of denial has the look and feel of greater realism, but actually constitutes a more desperate and dangerous response. It admits that capitalism is the problem, but also contends that capitalism is the solution. This general approach emphasizes what is variously referred to as “sustainable capitalism,” “natural capitalism,” “climate capitalism,” “green capitalism,” etc.7 In this view we can continue down the same road of capital accumulation, mounting profits, and exponential economic growth — while at the same time miraculously reducing our burdens on the planetary environment. It is business as usual, but with greater efficiency and greater accounting of environmental costs. No fundamental changes in social or property relations — in the structure of production and consumption — are required. This is the magical world view advanced by such diverse figures as Al Gore, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, and Jonathon Porritt — if not Thomas Friedman, Newt Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, as well.

 From a policy perspective, this normally divides into two streams, one state-centered and the other market-centered. Green Keynesians like to think that we can ameliorate our environmental problems (and our economic problems too) by having the state promote economic growth through the creation of green jobs. Green Schumpeterians, like Friedman, Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, offer as a solution green technological innovations, supposedly a natural outgrowth of the market — but usually seen as requiring additional subsidies to corporations to harness its full strength. Here too the promise is one of heightened economic growth on greener terms, equated simply with greater energy efficiency. 

The main problem, which all of this denies, is the nature and logic of capitalism itself. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is quite simply, the system of capital. Its sole purpose is the accumulation of capital through the exploitation of human labor. It is a grow-or-die system dominated by the 1% (the capitalist class) and giant corporations. It is prone to periodic economic crises, and constant — and today deepening — unemployment. Capital accumulation and economic expansion occur by means of gross inequality and monopolistic competition, generating a war of all against all and a world of waste. The wider public/social/natural sphere is an object of theft — a realm in which to dump “externalities” or impose unpaid social costs, which then fall on nature and humanity in general. 

 Endless capitalism requires unlimited economic growth. Economists generally consider a 3 percent average rate of economic growth over the long run as absolutely essential for the stability of the capitalist system. Yet, if we were to have a continual 3 percent rate of economic growth, world output would expand exponentially by around sixteen times in a century, 250 times in two centuries, and 4000 times in three centuries. Already we are overshooting planetary limits — consuming resources as if we had multiple planets at our disposal, undermining the very basis of our existence.8

 What then is the alternative? The answer is a cultural-power shift — opening up the world to the creative efforts of hundreds of millions, even billions of people, and unleashing a process of sustainable human development. Today the world Occupy movement is showing the way. It is time, as Noam Chomsky contends, not simply to Occupy Wall Street but to go on to “Occupy the Future.”9

 As the 99%, we need to take direct action with respect to the environment: locking up the three-quarters of the proven, economically available oil, natural gas, and coal (remembering always that the poorest countries have to be allowed to develop while the richer countries need disproportionately to pay the cost); blocking the Canadian-U.S. tar sands pipeline; and imposing a carbon fee at the point of production (i.e. at the oil well, mine shaft, and point of entry) — the funds from which would be returned immediately to the population on a per capita basis, so that those with the largest carbon footprints, predominantly the corporate rich, would be the ones that paid. (This is the proposal of U.S. climatologist James Hansen.)10

 In the end we will need to go on and culturally Occupy the system itself through a long-term ecological and social revolution, opening the way to democratic planning at all levels of society from the local community on up.11

 Under twenty-first century capitalism the world is being buried in commodity waste. We are compelled, simply in order to live and breathe in this society, to engage in useless and alienated labor directed at satisfying artificial wants through the production of mere “stuff,” the bulk of which ends up being disposed of soon after it is purchased. This all takes places simply so that the whole process can start up again, more commodities can be generated, and more profits can be made by the 1%. As radical economist Juliet Schor says, we have lost any sense of “true wealth.”12

 In the United States today we spend about $1 trillion on the military each year, far more than all the rest of the world put together.13 U.S. corporations and businesses today spend more than $1 trillion on marketing annually, simply in order to persuade people to buy things that they don’t want or need.14 Our very cultural apparatus is shaped so as to conform to the imperative of marketing — not democratic communication.

 If we are to save the earth, this gargantuan waste and destruction which dominates our lives needs to be brought to an end, so that we can focus on the real issues: making sure that everyone in every part of the world has enough of life’s basic needs; building community; promoting substantive equality; and creating the basis for sustainable human development. Some have called this a socialism for the twenty-first century. In a 1962 speech to the National Maritime Union, Martin Luther King declared: “We are presiding over a dying order, one which has long deserved to die,” and he ended his speech with the words of the great American socialist Eugene Debs: “I can see the dawn of a better humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.”15

 Now is the time of which Debs and King spoke, the time in which to create a new society where human beings no longer deny, but affirm, their connections to each other and to the Earth.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

 1 On ecological denialism as a complex social construct see Kari Norgaard, Living With Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011).
 2 Susan Solomon, et. al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (February 10, 2009): 1704-1709; Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future(New York: Harpers, 2010), 264-71. 
3 Myles Allen, et. al., “The Exit Strategy,” Nature Reports Climate Change, April 30, 2009, and “Warming Caused by Cumulative Carbon Emissions Towards the Trillionth Tonne,” Nature 458 (April 20, 2009): 1163-66; Malte Meinshausen, et. al., “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2° C,” Nature 458 (April 30, 2009): 1158-62;; Catherine Brahic, “Humanity’s Carbon Budget Set at One Trillion Tons,” New Scientist, April 29, 2009; Cullen, The Weather of the Future, 264-71; International Economic Agency, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion (Paris: IEA, 2011), 7.
 4 Johan Rockström, et. al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (September 24, 2009): 472-75.
 5 See John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe,” forthcoming Monthly Review63, no. 7 (December 2011): 1-17, where the three stages of denial are put in the context of an overall accumulation of catastrophe under capitalism.
 6 Allan Schnaiberg introduced the treadmill of production critique in his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), based on earlier Marxian conceptions. 
7 See Al Gore, Our Choice (New York: Rodale, 2009), 346; Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism(Boston: Little Brown, 1999); L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Climate Capitalism(New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Jonathon Porritt, Capitalism: As If the World Mattered(London: Earthscan, 2007); Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008); New Gingrich, A Contract With the Earth(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Break Through(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
 8 Charles Morse, “Environment, Economics and Socialism,” Monthly Review 30, no. 11 (April 1979): 15.
 9 Noam Chomsky, “Occupy the Future,” November 2, 2011,
 10 James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren(New York: Bloomsbury, 2009),211-20.
 11 For a more developed argument on short-term, radical ecological changes and long-term revolutionary ecological change see Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 123-44.
12 Juliet Schor, True Wealth(London: Penguin, 2010).
 13 For the data on military spending see John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October 2008): 9-13.
 14 “U.S. Marketing Spending Exceeded $1 Trillion in 2005,” Metrics Business and Market Intelligence, June 26, 2006,; Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 1.
 15 Martin Luther King, Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 71.

Running Unalienated

Here in “The Lost Secret of Running” is 1) a brilliant little story of how capitalism (in the form of Nike) distorts our species being (We are a long-distance running species.) and hurts us; and 2) how to run as if you had a human body. Hint: It’s not how you’ve learned to run, which is to maximize Nike’s profits. Includes a video and stills of human running technique.

It turns out, that if we run like humans, we can run far, and faster, and without pain.

Human running (with some degree of desperation)

Showing more stills of proper running technique, this blog calls 100-up running technique “Chi running”. The technique’s about the same.

In a related story of what happens to food and health when financial capital steps in, here is an article about the blog confessions of a retired General Mills exec.
Need to know how to eat as if you were a human? Check out Michael Pollan.

“Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky