CapitalismLetters

Capitalism and Science: A reading of Daniel Boscov-Ellen on Ecology

I believe the question of capitalism’s relation to ecological crisis can be clarified by relating capitalism and science. There are strong affinities between these two enterprises. Consider:

The medieval world-view was human and/or God-centered. The earth was the center of the universe. The stars and planets rotated in perfect circles. They tinkled as they moved. Angels flew among them. Hell started as a whole in earth. The Garden of Eden could still be found on maps.

The essence of the scientific revolution lay in distancing the human mind from the world. Absolute space and time, force at a distance, laws of motion, the atomic hypothesis. Distancing gave measurement and mathematics its place, but even more important it was associated with a conceptual revolution. Think of what it took to move from the circle to the ellipse. Furthermore, the scientific revolution was associated with a new distancing or objectivity in regard to inner mental life, as in Montaigne or Descartes.

Capitalism entailed a similar revolution in thought. Earlier economic life was embedded. In other words, economic life followed closely on organic or natural conditions, as in small-scale or village agriculture. Capitalism entails distancing, objectification, mathematics: the creation of abstract labor. Abstract labor — the quality in labor that makes it exchangeable — is like science in that it is universal. There are no “varieties of capitalism” any more than there are “varieties of science”; the true nature of modernity is universality, something different from “globalization,” a US-centric idea.

Since I think the essence of capitalism lies in distancing, objectification and measurement, I am not susceptible to the argument that the problem with capitalism is that it separates us from nature. (This has been a theme in several talks.) Nor am I convinced by neo-Polanyian calls to re-embed economic activity in society or nature. This would take us backward. Daniel Boscov-Ellen’s brilliant talk, however, did leave me with three other questions:

  • 1) Daniel and others see a problem in capitalism’s limitless drive to accumulate, but is that the problem or is democracy the problem? In other words, a lot of the mindless, “stupid,” greed and individualism that Daniel associates with capitalism night better be traced to democracy, which is a counterpart to the capitalist economic life. Daniel himself posed the problem.
  • 2) Does capitalism have a mind? In other words, does it have steering mechanisms that can help us in dealing with such crises as climate change? I think the answer here is yes. Max Weber is relevant here. He says that greed will not produce the modern capitalist, but rather the conquistador, Cortez or Pizarro. What produces the capitalist, Weber wrote, is the desire for control or organization. Certainly in the industrial era we saw enormous forms of capitalist self-regulation (eg growth of the corporation, national banks, fiscal and monetary policy, etc). I also think that neo-liberalism should be seen as a form of self-regulation, rather than as the “natural” form of capitalism. To deal with ecological disaster, we may have to revert to some of the forms of self-regulation that characterized the late-industrial or Keynesian era.
  • 3) Finally, Daniel’s lecture helps put the overall course in a new perspective. We can think of capitalism as tendentially both global and universal from the first, but as opening three rifts in the course of its evolution: with the natural world, between nations, and between men and women. We can then think of the present crisis as a time of “healing” these rifts, making universality concrete and real.

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Eli Zaretsky

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