Environmental Justice and the Derivative Depression

preparing for the start of a new semester at the University of Washington, I am pondering what to emphasize to students during the first day of classes. I am teaching two seminars, one focused on the study of food sovereignty movements, and the other a ‘theory’ course on the contributions of anthropology to the comparative study of social movements in the Mesoamerican Diaspora.

I already see numerous connections between the two themes: food sovereignty and theories of social movements. The first problem that occurs to me may not be at all obvious, namely the dilemma posed by the advent of what Christian Marazzi and others have called cognitive capitalism. This is the idea of a cyberspace-based realm of ‘high finance’ that profits from the construction of complicated credit default obligations, collateralized debt obligations, and other financial instruments that basically allow for the extraction of surplus value out of speculative thin air through the commodification of ‘risk.’ This development, Marazzi argues, has altered everything ? including the prospects and methods needed for the multitude to escape hunger, malnutrition, and structural violence.

Marazzi, a member of the Italian autonomist/post-workerist school of thought, develops the theory of immaterial labor and cognitive capital in his 2008 book Capital and Language. Echoing similar arguments made by Hardt and Negri in Multitude and Commonwealth, Marazzi argues that the transformation of material (physical) labor into immaterial labor is the source of new forms of surplus value fashioned by finance capitalists. This occurs through the use of highly secret algorithmic models, some developed by theoretical physicists, that have been all the rage as the Wall Street mandarins try to respond to von Hayek’s posing of the problem of informational limits in finance capital’s “dances with prices.”


The new forms of accumulation of surplus value rely not on the extraction of unpaid labor time beyond that which is socially necessary, or even through remote command over actual objects, persons, raw materials, or factories (assembly lines, etc). Rather, the new accumulation is based on the exploitation of abstract knowledge, general intellect, and social cooperation. ‘Cloud’ computing produces surplus value for capital through the unpaid mental labor time of internet users and consumers of software apps. Cloud sourcing of the apps is the archetype of this form of value which is easily veiled behind the guise of the intellectual commons and user democracy.

An overlooked contributor to this intriguing discussion is Webster Tarpley who recently published a short essay that, in a mere few pages, provides a pithy and damning critique of some fifty years of neoliberal theoretical scribblings. He also provides an indictment of forty-plus years of dominance as the underlying ideological rationale for America’s ‘shock doctrine’ policies dating back to the overthrow of Chile’s President Allende.

Tarpley’s critique is grounded in a basic recognition that “today’s depression has been caused by 40 years of monetarist-inspired deregulation. Derivatives were illegal from 1936 until Reagan legalized them in 1982?. Now there are $1.5 quadrillion of derivatives strangling the world economy. Derivatives, not subprime mortgages, are the reason for today’s crisis.” Tarpley further concludes that a key contributor to today’s “derivatives depression” is privatization, which has “open[ed] the door to the looting excesses which are now well known” by turning the commons into commodities and giving investment banks carte blanche to exploit and manipulate deregulated markets to their own advantage and the public’s expense.

Tarpley’s words struck a nerve, especially the part about a ‘quadrillion’ in toxic derivatives that include mortgage backed securities, structured investment vehicles, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, repo agreements, and other fancy cognitive instruments. These toxic assets wait in the algorithmic shadows of the circuits of finance capital. Eventually, the collapse of these quadrillion in derivatives will vampirically suck out whatever remains of the money-form of value in the lifeblood of the material (as opposed to the virtual) economy.

This ‘vampire virtual economy’ is destroying the ability of the industrial capitalist sector to negotiate the circuit of the reproduction of capital, since derivatives are draining the system of access to productive capital. If you think matters have been bad during the presumed (and jobless) recovery to the so-called ‘Great Recession,’ bear in mind that the current phase of this crisis is the unfolding of a longer-term systemic economic collapse that will come in distinct waves over the next 10-20 years of transition away from a unipolar world dominated by the USA as an economic superpower hegemon. To put it in perspective, the 2008-10 phase involves a mere $1.6 trillion of the quadrillion (a thousand trillion) in toxic assets globally. In other words, we are still witnessing the earliest stages of the disintegration of the commodity of risk regime that neoliberals created out of speculative thin air to aid and abet finance capital and its open courtship of disaster.

Still, Tarpley overlooks one truly important point from the vantage of environmental justice and food sovereignty ? namely, how Wall Street’s ‘derivative vampirism’ has transformed and affected our entire global agri-food system. Crop, pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer prices are volatile, and this condition of uncertainty affects distribution and access to food. The points of access have also been subjected to the speculative algorithmic exercises that seek to commodify risk and end up starving millions to death while leading a billion others into the agonizing perfidy of malnutrition.

Just as Thatcher brought rickets, scurvy, and pellagra to the British working class, so too neoliberal policies in the US since Reagan have taken us on a trajectory toward increasing hunger, homelessness, displacement, historical trauma, and structural violence. Neoliberal wrecking balls have destroyed the ‘House of Labor’ and its New Deal social contract obligations and transformed us into a nation of obese fast food consumers. The neoliberal form of governmentality emphasizes the operation of the unregulated free market as the ultimate model that is the basis for the construction and evaluation of all social and behavioral policy, including in areas like public health and environmental quality of life. Neoliberalism delegates to the individual the privilege of exercising the ‘autonomy’ of ‘self-care.’ And if you don’t care for yourself, that is your choice, and you simply deserve to die.

This Randian ideology rationalizes the neoliberal destruction of institutions of collective action by disqualifying the legitimacy of the ‘social wage’ and other forms of guaranteed livelihood income that were such a central part of the ‘productivity deal’ that Keynes got FDR to impose on workers and capital to save capitalism from itself. Now, it looks like current neoliberal budgetary moves are set to replay not 1929 but 1935, and with two wars front-loaded!

The Eco-justice Alternative

If that was the end of the story, it might not have been worth the telling ? but there is another narrative that offers us at least some cause for hope. The environmental justice movement embraces and nurtures the widening struggles for the restoration of the commons against new enclosures and privatization. It launches actions toward an end to corporate and military destruction of the Earth. It does so because environmental justice principles privilege the concept of the Earth not as a commodity, natural resource, or wilderness to be kept separate from humans, but as the cherished life support system of humans and all other organisms.

This means that there are no ‘externalities,’ and the destruction of the Earth’s life support system is a cost to every living thing on the planet. The growing episodes of food shortages, and the increasing difficulties experienced by many communities in gaining or maintaining access to safe and potable drinking water, are results of the commodification of risk and a predatory economy based on speculative investments in hedge funds that bet for or against starvation-related mortality rates.

By now, capitalism is quickly running out of things to turn into wooden-headed commodities. Capital owns patents on life and patents on thought (intellectual property). It is selling pollution like a tradeable development damage permit and arrogantly claims ownership of a growing number of gene sequences that form part of our human genome. Capital also discounts the cost of this arrangement to the planet and its inhabitants, with one prime consequence of this regime being that the world has an ever larger mass of hungry and malnourished people.

What will be the stake that we use to punch through the soulless heart of this system? The environmental justice movement provides an interesting set of responses to that question. First and foremost is the idea that we must not allow capitalism to continue to ‘discount’ (deny and ignore) the social, environmental, cultural, and health costs of this predatory, increasingly vampire-like economy. I expect that even the smartest theoretical physicist will in the end find that the algorithms all lead back to the same place: mass mobilization of the multitude in the streets in a movement that sublates the political economy of death, hunger, and violence.

Therein lies my hope, in the inevitable rise and spread of an ‘alterNative’ solidarity economy based on the time-tested principles and practices of environmental justice.

Devon G. Pe?a, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998).

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