Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The financial and the climate crisis: an anthropologist's view

 There are many similarities between the current financial crisis and the climate crisis. For example, in the mono-cultural discourses on crisis which restrict our imaginations. Economists, politicians and climate scientists alike preach the strange litany of “the rules of the market”, “the iron laws of economy”, “the inevitability of development and progress”, reducing people to consumers who always want to have more, have to work more and so on. David Graeber is a cultural anthropologist at Goldsmiths College, and he has opened up this black box in his widely acclaimed study about “Debt: The first 5000 years” (read reviews here and here). I recently found an article in which he links the financial and the climate crisis: “Against Kamikaze capitalism: oil, climate change and the French refinery blockades” (shift magazine, Nov. 2010). It’s worth to have a look at it for several reasons:
  • the target is not as usual the “public” or the “consumer”; instead, it is the oil industry;
  • the article links environmental justice with social justice;
  • he argues against the “productivity ethos” and the “work ethos trap”
  • and thinks  that  environmentalists and workers can be unlikely allies;
  • and he argues that not money is scarce, but natural resources.
As in “debt”, Graeber shows that there are possibilities available to the administrative-academic monocultures which dominate the discussion about global warming. Instead, he opens up the discussion and translates the scientific consensus on climate change into a program of political activism. 
In the first part, Graeber reports about a secret action from a group called “Crudeawakening”, in which he embarks in London. They successfully manage to blockade for five hours the access road to a refinery which supplies 80% of all oil consumed in London.
“It was nice to win one for a change. Facing a world where security forces—from Minneapolis to Strasbourg—seem to have settled on an intentional strategy of trying to ensure, as a matter of principle, that no activist should ever leave the field of a major confrontation with a sense of elation or accomplishment (and often, that as many as possible should leave profoundly traumatized), a clear tactical victory is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, there was a certain ominous feel to the whole affair: one which made the overall aesthetic, with its mad scientist frocks and animated corpses, oddly appropriate.“
This blockade was inspired by activists from the Climate Justice Action network, “for a kind of anti-Columbus day, in honor and defense of the earth”. But these world wide planned actions were over-shadowed by severe budgets cuts by the Torys in England, threatening the British welfare states. Even more, when the French Climate Camp came to blockade the Total refinery in Le Havre, they found it already occupied by its workers in their nationwide struggle about pensions, which already had shut down 16 of 17 French oil refineries:
“The police reaction was revealing. As soon as the environmental activists appeared, the police leapt into action, forcing the strikers back into the refinery and establishing a cordon in an effort to ensure that under no conditions should the activists be able to break through and speak with the petroleum workers (after hours of efforts, a few, on bicycles, did eventually manage to break through.)“
Activists celebrated the unity of workers and environmentalists, arguing that there is no environmental justice without social justice. Of course, they are fully aware that everybody considers this union as totally naïve. But it depends on how you argue:
“Environmental justice won’t happen without social justice,” remarked one of the French Climate Campers afterwards. “Those who exploit workers, threaten their rights, and those who are destroying the planet, are the same people.” True enough. “We need to move towards a society and energy transition and to do it cooperatively with the workers of this sector. The workers that are currently blockading their plants have a crucial power into their hands; every litre of oil that is left in the ground thanks to them helps saving human lives by preventing climate catastrophes.”
And he goes on:
"On the surface this might seem strikingly naive. Do we really expect workers in the petroleum industry to join us in a struggle to eliminate the petroleum industry? To strike for their right not to be petroleum workers? But in reality, it’s not naive at all. In fact that’s precisely what they were striking for. They were mobilizing against reforms aimed to move up their retirement age from 60 to 62—that is, for their right not to have to be petroleum workers one day longer than they had to.“
 The remainder of the article goes into the debate between anarchism on the one hand and Marxism/capitalism on the other: neoliberalism, according to Graeber, is not about economy and productivity, it is a political and moral enterprise:
“The question is how to break the assumption that engaging in hard work—and by extension, dutifully obeying orders—is somehow an intrinsically moral enterprise. This is an idea that, admittedly, has even affected large sections of the working class. For anyone truly interested in human liberation, this is the most pernicious question. In public debate, one of the few things everyone seems to have to agree with is that only those willing to work—or even more, only those willing to submit themselves to well-nigh insane degrees of labor discipline—could possibly be morally deserving of anything—that not just work, work of the sort considered valuable by financial markets—is the only legitimate moral justification for rewards of any sort. This is not an economic argument. It’s a moral one. It’s pretty obvious that there are many circumstances where, even from the economists’ perspective, too much work and too much labor discipline is entirely counterproductive. Yet every time there is a crisis, the answer on all sides is always the same: people need to work more!“
From here on, Graeber enters his most familiar terrain of expertise, the money markets:  
“I might add that this moralistic obsession with work is very much in keeping with the spirit of neoliberalism itself, increasingly revealed, in these its latter days, as very much a moral enterprise. Or I think at this point we can even be a bit more specific. Neoliberalism has always been a form of capitalism that places political considerations ahead of economic ones. How else can we understand the fact that Neoliberals have managed to convince everyone in the world that economic growth and material prosperity are the only thing that mattered, even as, under its aegis real global growth rates collapsed, sinking to perhaps a third of what they had been under earlier, state-driven, social-welfare oriented forms of development, and huge proportions of the world’s population sank into poverty.“
He makes the important step to establish a link between the climate crisis and the economic crisis, identifying capitalism as a potential suicidal enemy who even doesn’t believe in ist own success anymore: „ As a result, we are left in the bizarre situation where almost no one believes that capitalism is really a viable system any more, but neither can they even begin to imagine a different one. The war against the imagination is the only one the capitalists seem to have definitively won.“ That’s what he calls kamikaze capitalism.  
Imagination is possible, and there is poetic clarity in how Graeber links economic and environmental crisis:
“What is the real relation between all that money that’s supposedly in such short supply, necessitating the slashing of budgets and abrogation of pension agreements, and the ecological devastation of our petroleum-based energy system? Aside from the obvious one: that debt is the main means of driving the global work machine, which requires the endless escalation of energy consumption in the first place. In fact, it’s quite simple. We are looking at a kind of conceptual back-flip. Oil, after all, is a limited resource. There is only so much of it. Money is not.”
The “no-no-word” (Unwort) in Germany last year was “alternativlos” (without alternative); Graeber’s take on economic theories is exactly challenging the logic of "without alternatives inherent" in economists’ talk. History of mankind shows that debt means establishing a relationship among people:  
“Money is treated as if it were oil, a limited resource, there’s only so much of it; the result is to give central bankers the power to enforce economic policies that demand ever more work, ever increasing production, in such a way that we end up treating oil as if it were money: as an unlimited resource, something that can be freely spent to power economic expansion, at roughly 3-5% a year, forever. The moment we come to terms with the reality, that we are not dealing with absolute constraints but merely promises, we can no longer say “but there just isn’t any money”—the real question is who owes what to whom, what sort of promises are worth keeping, which are absolute—a government’s promise to repay its creditors at a predetermined rate of interest, or the promise that it’s workers can stop working at a certain age, or our promise to future generations to leave them with a planet capable of human habitation. Suddenly the morality seems very different; and, like the French environmentalists, we discover ourselves with friends we didn’t know we had.”
There is an utopian element in Graeber's take on the financial and climate crisis, as the New York Times states:
“Debt” ends with a paean to the “non-industrious poor.” “Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent . . . enjoying and caring for those they love,” Graeber writes, they are the “pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-destruction.”
Those who preach hard work and austerity in the name of reason, they also talk about "invisible hands", "needs of markets" and other strange  "phantoms of capitalism" . The "occupy movement" is for ages the first social movement that has inspired new thoughts about the way we live; from here, it is only a small step to have similar thoughts about the place where we live. David Graeber opens this door in his short and provocative article.


Vinny Burgoo said...

So much for anthropology at Goldsmiths. Graeber's account of what happened at Le Havre is a fantasy invented to illustrate his worldview. The strikers were already occupying the refinery within an existing police cordon, so the police did not leap into action to keep workers and intellectuals apart.

(Indeed the workers and intellectuals had been conniving for months.)

Werner Krauss said...

@Vinny Burgo

"So much for anthropology at Goldsmiths" - this is blogging at its worst. Please try to keep a minimum standard of education and respect. Thanks.

Concerning your argument: I cannot read it from Graeber's article that there was no police cordon before. I only read that the police tried to keep environmentalists and workers apart. I have no idea whether this is true or not; it's just that I don't understand your argument.

Hannah said...

Werner, have you guys changed the design of the blog on purpose? I preferred the old layout....:o)

Vinny Burgoo said...

Werner, you're right. I was wrong to be so disrespectful. I'm sorry.

I won't bother defending my 'argument'.

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks, and sorry for having been so sensitive in the early morning hours! And at least, you had an argument, which is better than no argument at all, sigh....

Werner Krauss said...


Slight changes, yes, but what's wrong with it?

Hannah said...

It was easier to get a quick overview before. Due to work etc I don’t necessarily look at Klimazwiebel every day so when I do I like to see what interesting things has been posted since I last visited and it is more difficult to quickly view the older posts now. I am working this morning so will have to save reading this post of yours for later.....:o) but OT I am reading a book called “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman at the moment, it is seriously interesting. Have you read it? If yes, then I would love your thoughts. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/15bb6522-04ac-11e1-91d9-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1oVwuMUAP

eduardo said...

the changes in the layout have been quite minor. For instance, the links that belong to the blog layout ( like 'comments', 'print this post') have a darker blue colour than the links that belong to the text itself. Also, some of the layout links appear now on the right side, whereas before they were all jammed below the post text. There is now a separating space between title and author name.

I think that the reason why you find the general layout now more confusing is that our authors (ehem) are now posting big graphics at the start of the post, sometimes use different font size ( like this post), or display a long introductory paragraph before the 'read more' break. I guess this is the price of being several indisciplined authors :-) instead of just one author.
If you, or anyone else, has some suggestions on the layout we can try to implement them, but blogspot is not very author-friendly sometimes, and some features are quite difficult to implement without investing quite some time googleing

Hannah said...

Fair enough. I shall, no doubt, get my head around the new layout.....:o) “several indisciplined authors” is what I like about this blog.... although you lose me when the posts/comments are in German....perhaps, Klimazwieble could go English, Danish and Swedish in the future? ;o)

eduardo said...

No, no barbarian languages. At some point we should turn to classical Greek with translations in vernacular Latin for the laggards

Reiner Grundmann said...

I see that Google translate offers Latin but not classical Greek

Hannah said...

Giggle, giggle.....well, as it happens, Plato’s “The Symposium” is a favorite of mine and I have a fondness for Pyrrho (“epokhe” seems to be my fallback position these days :o) so I might be convinced about the classic Greek.......In any event you are right, Danish is probably the ugliest language in the world, you can’t seduce anybody in Danish .....Swedish is slightly better..........

Hans von Storch said...

Hannah, du må gerne skrive noget på Dansk. Faktisk har vi lige fra begyndelsen af Zwiebelen henvist at folk må gerne bruge alle slags sprog, som forstås i Hamborg. Bidrag på Svensk, Norsk og Dansk er meget velkommen.

Hannah said...

Hans, jeg tager faktisk til Koebenhavn i morgen. Jeg skal sende en vejr report derfra....:o)

Roddy said...

I want to learn to speak Werner, but it looks quite hard.

Reiner Grundmann said...

I note that Graeber’s text did not attract much of a substantial comment. Maybe it is too taxing? Or too ideological and utopian for most people’s taste?

It is worth discussion though. Not least because it makes some very questionable claims. Graeber says that it is wrong to assume that natural resources and money are similar in that both are scarce resources. He denies this and thinks any restrictions in bailing out states are misplaced. Now it is one thing to argue for well specified debt cancellation (or giving Greece lenient support). But it is another matter to deny the similarity of "money and oil". Both resources are related to our future possibilities to make use of them. In other words, natural resources and financial resources have to be addressed from a viewpoint of sustainability. All economic activity is future oriented and if economies keep accumulating debt it will pose a problem for future generations (or future governments). Not realizing this aspect allows him to delve into his pet political projects (situationist, anarchist) without realizing that there is a common theme to both the problem of depletion of natural resources and financial obligations. Societies need to find sustainable pathways in both.
He knows that accumulating debt is not possible indefinitely. Eventually the system collapses and people revolt. His remedy, based on history, is to wipe the slate clean and press the reset button. No doubt, this has happened historically, on the level of single jurisdictions. Today this is a problem for the global economy and global financial markets. It is untried, rsiky, and above all, cannot be contemplated as a strategy because it would lead to a moral hazard problem of gigantic proportions. Imagine a global debt cancellation being seriously considered. This would have to be coordinated secretly (by whom? The IMF? World Bank? G8? G20?) which is impossible. It has to be secret because if you do it in an orderly process (say, like the introduction of the Euro), economic activity will stall since no one would want to commit to anything because the value of the transactions would be erased soon after. No one would lend because there is no prospect of being repaid (pretty much happening now but on a lower scale).
So the conclusion seems to be that if global debt cancellation is to occur, it would be after a massive crisis (defaulting not only of Greece, but several other, bigger states with knock on effects to virtually all financial institutions) and public unrest. Not a prospect many would like to embrace.

The challenge is to make our economies sustainable, which means to find ways to deal with the problem of economic growth. Simply advocating steady state economies is not a solution. The future needs to hold a promise, not only for capitalist investors, but for the young, the poor, the excluded. This is where I would locate avantgarde thinking.

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner, again, thanks for commenting. Your consderations are worthwhile, of course, but have not much to do with Graeber's theory about debt.

I think it is my own fault; I just put too much into my post to do justice to all aspects of David Graebner's arguments. Most of all, his book about debt is a philosophical book based on anthropology (and I have only read a 5th of it yet); he thinks about the nature of debt and what it means to say: "Surely one has to pay one's debts" - something most of us would spontaneously agree.

In more than 500 pages, he brings many examples to demonstrate that common sense sometimes plays tricks on us. Here an example from the beginning of the book, where he explains to a colleague what the International Monetary Fund is:

"During the '70ies oil crisis, OPEC countries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn't figure out where to invest the money; how Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (....); how they started out at extremely low rates of interest that almost immediately skyrocketed to 20 percent or so due to tight U.S. money policies in the early '80ies; how, during the '80ies and '90ies, this led to the Third World debt crisis; how the IMF then stepped in to insist that, in order to obtain refinancing, poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education; how all of this led to the collapse of all the most basic supports for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the earth. I spoke of poverty, of the looting of public resources, the collapse of societies, endemic violence, malnutrition, hopelessness, and broken lives."

The IMF for him is the world's debt enforcers: "You might say the high equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs".

(Graeber, David 2011: Debt. The first 5000 years. Melville House Publishing, p.7)

He goes into more detail about his own fieldwork in Madagascar, where people were dying of malaria, because public health service had broken down due to the fact that the dictator was off with the money and the population left alone with the French debt enforcers and the respective cutting of public programs. Today, ironically or cynically, malaria is attributed to climate change.

So Graeber is not that simple. In his final conclusion, again, he is not a strategical planner. He "only" undermines the common sense understanding of "one has to pay his debts" - in hundreds of examples.

His book (and maybe activities) make simple stories (you have to pay your debts) more complex; most of all, he shows that there are alternatives in economy; there is not just ONE solution. For me, this is also one of the main messages of anthropology in general: there are always many different ways to deal with situations; everybody who claims that "the market", "science", "nature" or whatever leaves only one solution is suspicious.

Reiner Grundmann said...

I have not read his book but listened to a BBC radio show recently. This is where I came across his debt cancellation argument.

Werner Krauss said...


yes, of course, Graeber asks for debt cancellation, that's his agenda. Thanks for the link.

I always wondered why there is not really a social movement concerning climate change. Now I learn that obviously, there is. I want to learn more about climate camps, how they relate to the occupy people, and what they discuss and so on. I think it is indeed very much going on. And it is difference between scientific discussions, think tanks and social movements - one cannot measure them with the same categories.

As far as I can see, the occupy movement was enormously successful without arguments; for a moment, it was their pure existence or the power of performance which made an impact on the discussion of global markets.

Of course, most of all I am interested in the anthropological impact on the movement, such as Gillian Tett (an anthropologist who writes for the Finacial times); or Karen Ho (who wrote "Liquidated: an ethnography of Wall street"), or here David Graeber and his study of "debt".

They open up discourses in many ways, show up alternative perspectives and ways to think, challenge taken for granted ideas about economy and markets and, most of all, have an eye on those who have to pay the price. Based on empirical studies.

I also see the problem that you mention concerning how the climate problem is still addressed, especially the uncritical use of science. How to bring in what you suggest with the Kaya approach, or Ravetz ideas (who indeed have to be liberated from the grip of skeptics), or other non-positivist arguments for climate action.

But on the other hand, they address the oil industry as part of the problem; challenge the idea of consumerism as a natural fact, and criticize global governance theories. Again, one should not only look for what they say; the performance aspect, the energy involved, the subcultural aspects are arguments, too.

So for me, it is learning, observing and discussing simultaneously.

I highly appreciate your comments and interest, and we should feed klimazwiebel from time to time with more those "sociological" approaches - after having put so much energy in discussing skeptical world views...