Marx and the Two Crises in “New York 2140”

September 18th, 2018  |  Published in Fiction, Political Economy, Politics

What follows resembles remarks I made at an event marking an art exhibition at the Verso Books, to which Kathy Newman kindly invited me. The event took place on the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, one of the critical moments in the last great financial crisis. The artwork I mention is described here.

The unveiling of the photo, artist at right

The unveiling of the photo, Susanne Slavick at left, artist Alberto Jaar at right

Thank you for coming, and to Kathy for inviting me. Marx would probably be amused and a bit distressed to have pride of place here. I am of the camp that believes that Marx concluded, in his mature thought, that the theoretical system he had developed was suitable and necessary for understanding the capitalist mode of production, and for no other historical period or type of society. He would therefore be disappointed to find that he and his ideas had still not been rendered irrelevant.

Since we're here to consider a work of art dealing with the financial crisis, I thought I'd talk a bit about one of the best works of financial crisis art, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140. Robinson is both a Marxist a great writer of speculative fiction. New York 2140 imagines a future for this city that is very different from its present in one way, and very much the same in another.

The difference is that much of the city is underwater. Using extreme--but far from impossible--projections from current climate science, Robinson posits that the melting icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland have caused sea levels to rise by 50 to 60 feet. Such a dramatic rise means that all of Manhattan south of 34th Street is permanently underwater, while the region from there north to Central Park is the "intertidal", which is only dry at low tide. And yet people continue to behave like New Yorkers, stubbornly sticking around and trying to keep their partially-underwater buildings from collapsing. (The main characters live in the MetLife tower at 23rd and Madison.) Meanwhile the more cautious money has decamped--for Denver, wonderfully chosen as a symbol, as it is one of our highest elevation and most boring cities.

Now this is a different sort of crisis than the one we're marking here. Only it really isn't. The financial crisis and the climate crisis both stem from the operation of capitalism, a system that Marx showed us is prone to go into and out of crisis, again and again.

One fundamental reason for recurrent crises is capitalism's need for endless growth. The reason for this has do with something that's a bit futurist and science fictional about capitalism itself. It is a system predicated on deploying money in order to make more money--not merely in zero-sum competition between capitals, but as a whole. It is generally said, by bourgeois and left economists alike, that a healthy capitalism needs to average something like 3 percent growth a year.

How is this possible? How can all the capital that exists represent a quantity greater than itself? Because some of it is what Marxists call "fictitious" capital, which represents not value that exists in the present, but value that exists in the future, when some act of consumption will validate and valorize investments made in the present.

When this system is working smoothly, the magic of compound interest means that even growing at 3 percent or less a year, the amount of capital in existence can increase very rapidly. David Harvey notes that between 1970 and and 2010, the amount of global capital seeking investment outlets grew from $0.4 trillion to $1.5 trillion. Thus capital's historical record of rapid increases in material production and wealth is also, paradoxically, a problem for the system, because all of this capital has to be invested in something that will produce a positive return, and there are a limited number of such investment outlets, particularly in a world of rising income inequality and diminished purchasing power among the working class.

What is necessary, then, is for some portion of this excess value to be destroyed, "devalued" in Marxist terms. This means only that things become worthless, not that they are necessarily physically destroyed. There are many ways this can occur. Of course, companies go bankrupt and their shares become worthless, in the ordinary course of capitalist competition. War is a popular method of devaluation. But sometimes, things are so out of balance that a massive, system-wide correction is the only way to get back to a baseline of positive growth. Ice Cube, rapping about the LA riots, once said that "riots ain't nothing but diets for the system." In a way, so are financial crises.

But what does this have to do with climate change, which is where I started out? Quite a bit, as it happens. For one thing, catastrophic climate change is a hell of devaluation method. In the last crisis we heard a lot about "underwater" homeowners, those who owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth on the market. Now we face the prospect of houses being worthless because they are literally underwater. (Not that you would know that if developers and their friends in government have anything to say about it.)

Or maybe not totally worthless after all. I mentioned that New York 2140 is a financial crisis novel--Robinson has said he wrote it in response to the crash of 2007-8. And for all the geographic changes in his New York, what has not changed is finance capitalism, which seems almost implausibly similar to today's. A major plot point of the book turns on a property bubble related to investment in partially underwater properties, and a financial crisis triggered by a massive hurricane. One of the focal characters is a banker who specializes in betting on this intertidal real estate.

Climate crisis is coming--whether it will be as bad or worse than Robinson imagines is, at least in part, up to us and our political movements. But addressing it means confronting capitalism, just as dealing with financial crisis does. Marx himself understood how capitalism drove ecological destruction, because of the what James O'Connor called capital's "second contradiction" with nature, after its primary one with labor.

In Marx's day, the impact of carbon emissions on climate was not yet well understood. What was an object of intense investigation, however, was soil fertility. Marx followed the chemist Justus von Liebig, who observed that urbanization and industrialization were systematically depriving the soil of nutrients and harming crop yields. This happened because food was still being grown in the country, but it was then being transported to the cities to be consumed by the new industrial proletariat. The resulting waste, rather than being returned to the soil as in agrarian times, went into the gutters of London. Marx described this as a great disturbance in "the metabolic interaction between man and the earth". Later Marxists like John Bellamy Foster refer to Marx's theory of the "metabolic rift."

The missing shit of the absent proletariat was first replaced by bird shit, mined from guano deposits off the coast of South America, and then by industrial fertilizers. Those fertilizers were and are produced using large amounts of fossil fuel, meaning that the resolution of the soil fertility crisis fed directly into the atmospheric carbon crisis that we face today. I suspect that the resolution of that crisis, whether it is undertaken on an eco-capitalist or an eco-socialist basis, will, like the answer to diminished soil fertility, involve intensifying rather than reversing our manipulation of the human interchange with nature, managing rather than simply closing the metabolic rift. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson that along with a zero-carbon energy system, we probably need some kind of geoengineering--meaning either taking carbon out of the atmosphere, or blocking some portion of sunlight from penetrating the atmosphere--if we are to head off a human catastrophe.

What I want to leave you with, however, is the recognition that we are headed into a climate crisis, of which this weekend's hurricane in North Carolina is one omen, and that we are well overdue for another financial crisis. It's impossible to know exactly what will touch off that crisis, but one alarming indicator is student debt, which has astonishingly more than quadrupled in less than 15 years. (The concentration of this debt among a certain stratum of young adults should play a role in any explanation of phenomena like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Occupy Wall Street, which began seven years ago this Monday.)

But we should be wary of the tendency, indulged occasionally by environmentalists and leftists, to suppose that ecological or economic crisis can overturn capitalism on its own. Capital, remember, is not a thing but a form and a relation, a process of turning money into more money. That process does not require money to deployed in making any particular thing, or in making a thing at all (consider the value of intellectual property in the right to copies of an image; an image of Karl Marx's grave, say.)

There is a happy and only partially delusional version of the eco-capitalist story, in which big business makes money from recycling and solar panel installation; this view was on display just this week at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, attended by the likes of Starbucks and the financial firm Blackrock. But there's a darker side too, money to be made directly from the devastation of climate change. Naomi Klein popularized the term "disaster capitalism" to refer to the use of crisis as a pretext for neoliberal retrenchment, as seen for example in the gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But there is a way capitalism can also profit from the disaster itself--there's a lot of money to be made cleaning up, rebuilding, and relocating, not to mention selling gated communities and private security services to those who are rich enough to move to higher ground and hide from the victims of climate catastrophe.

In New York 2140, financial and environmental crisis coincides with a massive debt strike, so that instead of 2008-style bailouts, the system truly does begin to collapse and transform into something else. We won't have to wait until 2140 to face another crisis in the real world, the only question is whether this time, we can force a resolution that works for us, rather than for capital.

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