Capitalism at the Precipice

The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age, by François Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux, MIT Press.
Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, by Jason Hickel, Penguin Random House.

There are certain images that can mark a young mind forever. I can still vividly recall finding a black and white photo in a school history textbook featuring several participants in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike. The young women show early symptoms of necrosis of the jaw: the notorious occupational disease caused by exposure to phosphorous, which essentially eats away at the human face, resulting in excruciating pain and irreversible deformity.

Those defiant faces (in a textbook largely designed to encourage us to memorise the dates of the Reform Acts) still level a terrible accusation against capitalism. As I recall, the tale was supposed to be read as a milestone in the emergence of mass-democracy. To me, on a far more intuitive level, it exposed the barbarism of a force that remains content to mangle human bodies in order to render the disposable profitable.

We should of course be moved and inspired by such struggles, but perhaps we might also consider why there was a need to argue for non-face rotting working conditions in the first place. Indeed, the captains of British industry had form on this front. Jason Hickel’s Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, references the work of public health historian Simon Szreter, whose research has found that declines in life expectancy during the Industrial Revolution had only previously been matched by the Black Death. In the middle of another global pandemic, it feels uncomfortably relevant to observe today’s liberal centre incorporate the horrors of early industrialism as little more than regrettable growing pains.

The banning of phosphorus features in The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age, by historians François Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux. However, the authors are careful to set such advances towards basic occupational health in context: specifically, a hypermasculine ethos in which bosses, doctors, and indeed many workers, saw such ‘professional poisons’ as inevitable.

In an age of mass extinction, it should not be considered radical to observe that capitalism kills. We must be wary of the urge to historicise the appalling wastage of the nineteenth century, and place it in a more barbaric past. With the very tangible threat of omnicide on the horizon, the neatness of a school textbook adds up to complacency.

Both of these books offer accounts of destructive forces that are at once obvious and obscure. There is a dilemma for anti-capitalists here: telling people that widespread suffering wasn’t necessary pushes against the sacred ideal of progress. What if all the trauma involved in the getting of riches simply isn’t worth it?

In their meticulous study, Jarrige and Le Roux identify the long process through which pollution became integral to narratives of progress. Early modern pre-capitalist governance, in contrast, had the good sense to exile the dirtiest tanneries and forges beyond the city limits; to re-use urban waste rather than trying to dump it; to steward waterways and fish stocks. But the corporate lobbyist has a longer pedigree than we might think. Looked at from this starting point, our era of climate chaos was not inevitable, nor was it simply the by-product of thrusting market forces. It was legislated for and propagated, it proceeded consciously through political and scientific bodies with a clear modus operandi. With nature rendered as an infinitely reproducible commodity, industrialist ideology could proceed with the credo that ‘industry is a form of worship.’

We should be alarmed to note that such ideological zeal – pollution as progress – remains with us. Just as the smokestacks of the industrial metropolis were once viewed as infinitely healthier than the old artisan’s workshops, and white lead became a symbol of spotless hygiene, so today we believe, falsely, that the sheen of digital innovation will result in cleanliness. Coltan mines in the Congo, and cancerous rare earth excavations in China – so vital to the ongoing boom in consumer electronics – tell a different story. Each fresh phase of capitalist production always presents itself as the inverse of a dirtier past, but really it just becomes better at hiding the enormity of waste that it produces.

As the authors conclude, networks of extraction and dumping continue to outstrip previous centuries. However, the new political ecology of globalisation makes us blind to this:

‘In cities in the North that are heavy consumers of goods and services, infrastructures are sufficiently developed to evacuate waste and provide a degree of urban hygiene, which leaves the impression of a world without pollution, even though consumption is based on a productive chain (including mines, transport, and industry) that causes many contaminations.’

Well into the nineteenth century, pollution was understood primarily in terms of its unavoidable sensory cues: before technical advances began to standardise measurements of air quality and water purity. The question of how our relationship to pollutants became abstracted requires more than an academic text to explore. In the immigrant hungry Ruhr, where washing famously turned black due to the intensity of its industrial output: this was taken as a fact of life. In contrast, peasants across Europe often rioted when toxic emissions destroyed their crops. Then and now, deracinated and precarious migrant labour, like coal, is a primary input that feeds the factory system. Indeed, as Andreas Malm has demonstrated, the two go hand in hand.

The Contamination of the Earth provides a comprehensive account of how pollution is fundamentally linked to power and global inequalities. Out of this picture of radically different material conditions universal responses seem elusive. Air pollution is becoming increasingly intolerable in London, something that a recent landmark legal ruling has acknowledged. The lungs of millions of Londoners may be cleaner as a result. Meanwhile, the millions of residents of Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, have to contend with life in a city that has no mains sewage system. The nightmare of the nineteenth century slum-city is still integral to the reality we have built: the poorest continue to work the hardest and pay the most.

Over the past year, anti-capitalism has veered into the mainstream. The former Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, offered a disconcertingly radical example of this new scepticism by contrasting the exponential growth of, while: ‘the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland.’

Such arguments seem less remarkable when we consider polling which shows that a majority of Britons view capitalism as unfair. What’s more worthy of note is the way in which such sentiment is still largely exiled from the domain of electoral politics itself. In the anglophone world at least, it remains taboo to question the primacy of free exchange from anywhere near the centre ground. The social democratic platforms of Sanders and Corbyn, meanwhile, have been shorn of their insurgent energy. While the left that these men cleaved to in their younger years struck out for a long march through the institutions, unfolding ecological collapse demands a speedier advance.

Less is More posits that this collapse has intellectual origins. GDP – the notoriously flawed metric that was adopted in the middle of the last century – is particularly significant. Hickel also suggests that Cartesian dualism and colonialism have fed ideologies of dominant disciplines like economics, which subordinate environmental destruction as ‘externalities’ and validate the thirst for cheap natural inputs. Such deep rooted enlightenment ideas have brought us to an impasse: racing towards the precipice of planetary limits, while trying to stop the juggernaut of exponential growth and consumption.

This book was penned just before the pandemic. As a year elapses which featured a macabre dance whereby retail therapy and eating out were weighed up against human life, the reckless imperatives of growthism are presumably now far more visible. Exponential growth too, has presumably been the topic of widespread critical thought. Everything, potentially, happens on an incomprehensible scale. More potently: wages for social reproduction have become sensible, rather than radical.

Hickel, an anthropologist writing for a general audience, succeeds in outlining a fresh history of the epic struggle between capital and the commons. It’s a good story, but one that reads a little too much like a textbook. At points, Less is More is awkwardly didactic: it leaves us without a mechanism to leap from the past to the future.

A foreword by Extinction Rebellion, and a creditable argument linking the politics of degrowth to de-colonisation, imply a revolutionary moment must come, and soon. The core policies presented are ripe for the uptake – ending planned obsolescence, shortening the working week, capping resource use, reducing inequality, and expanding public goods. This adds up to a theory of ‘radical abundance’ that would indeed represent a revolutionary post-capitalist settlement.

However, for a book with ‘how’ in its title, the means by which we might get there are explored in less detail. Hickel stops short of following the intellectual father of de-colonisation and declaring that a new era of freedom should be achieved by any means necessary. If there is a tacit assumption here that the rich and their allies will simply accede to the demands of a new politics wired up to the logic of growth’s obsolescence, this is surely the political equivalent of believing in the chimeras of green growth or geoengineering. If we do develop a new post-capitalist system that protects and respects the rights of all bodies and ecosystems, it will involve an immense struggle against the dominance of those who see them as cheap and infinitely disposable.


Capitalism accuses itself, simply when it is made visible: on the body, in the air, above all, in the darker recesses of the human mind. Here we reach a crucial question. Just as early modern burghers had an intuitive sense that pollution should be pushed outside the city walls, do we retain, within us, some kind of sense that most of our ancestors were robbed: their land enclosed, their family cleared out, their skills and status demeaned and coerced?

Much will come to depend on whether a kind of intergenerational trauma can wake up the global north from its consumption-induced fug. The success of Green New Deals and Just Transitions might all come down to one deep-set issue: have we become so alienated as to forget the sanctity of things held in common?

2021 will be the year when we find out.



Comments (15)

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  1. Axel P Kulit says:

    My feeling is that most of the horrors of capitalism are actually the result of human nature, not the economic system. It’s human nature that leads professionals, in the words of Adam Smith, to engage in a conspiracy to defraud the public. The South Sea Bubble arose from greed and the hubristic belief the investor could outwit the knaves and events.

    Capitalism now is not what it was when Marx coined the term, just as the Tories have stopped being the Tories with whom we grew up.

    We need to get a better definition of capitalism, one that covers the ancient neoliberalism we have today

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      But ‘human nature’ (the homogeneity that’s required for the commodification of labour) is itself a product of ‘capitalism’ (the mode of production whereby commodities are purchased not for use, but rather for the purpose of creating new commodities with an exchange value that’s higher than the sum of the original purchases; that is, for the purpose of accumulative growth or ‘profit’). ‘Nature’ is likewise a product of ‘capitalism’; it’s the homogeneity required for the commodification of land.

      Take the word of an auld Marxist: the problem of environmental degradation through accumulative growth (the ‘impoverishment’ of land) will, like the impoverishment of labour, disappear with the abolition (‘sublation’) of capitalism in communism. The environmental crisis is a systemic crisis of capitalism and not a moral evil, a product of ‘sinful’ human nature. The latter is Augustinian nonsense.

      1. iffish says:

        The Aral Sea, along with numerous other Soviet crimes against the environment, begs to differ with your last paragraph there.

        1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          Yep, Russian state capitalism was just as environmentally degrading (and as degrading of labour) as laissez-faire capitalism.

          1. Productivism/Consumerism = both extractivist

          2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Yes, well… extractivism is the practice of selling land as a commodity on the world market. Both production and consumption can be extractivist or conservative in relation to land (and to labour and capital, for that matter) as a human resource, depending on its evaluation; that is, on whether its exploited for the exchange-value that can be extracted from it as a commodity or enjoyed for its own good. The idea is that, under communist relations of production, productive goods (land, labour, and capital) will themselves be produced and consumed conservatively, for their own sake, rather than extractively, for profit, as they are under capitalist relations of production.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    The Limits to Growth book has been remarkably accurate since 1972. On current business as usual it showed peak food was 2020. From here on in, we will produce on average less food than the year before on a planetary scale. It also showed peak population in 2025, and peak pollution around 2030.

    Which means degrowth is already here. We just don’t know it yet, and even worse for mankind’s hubris, we’re not in control of it. The Degrowth movement, which is our least worst adaptation to the predicaments we are in (summed up as overshoot), is merely having or hoping for some kind of control, nay, some kind of influence, over the process and outcomes of degrowth.

    “What if all the trauma involved in the getting off riches simply isn’t worth it?”
    Indeed, a crucial point. Those that have all the power and wealth certainly won’t think so. Witness the Davos set last week, saying we will have plenty and own nothing. In other words they plan to extract what remaining assets we have, and rent them back to us, in classic neo-liberal fashion. This suicidal death cult will need to be overthrown or sidelined and replaced with alternatives run locally, if we intend to have any kind of civilisation functioning in the remainder of our lifetime.

    Another good primer is Chris Smaje’s Small Farm Future,
    who discusses a lot of these issues.

    Will homo sapiens as a species rise to the challenge? Personally I doubt it, the history of humans dealing with collapse doesn’t make positive reading, although having said that, it was generally only the elites who had the most to lose from a collapse that could write, so perhaps the “dark ages” of civilisations past were only dark if you had some kind of wealth and/or power.

    “2021 will be the year when we find out.”
    Well said.

  3. John Learmonth says:

    Just an update on Malthusian theory.
    Malthus was wrong in 1798 just as you are in 2021 because both of you overlook human ingenuity and our ability as a species to adapt, change and improve.
    Average life expectancy in 1900 (UK) was 42, by 2020 it was 81. Should we ‘blame’ capitalism for this?
    Cheer up!

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Not capitalism, but the human desire to live longer and understand the world. Of course becoming rich in the process is to be welcomed.

    2. Mark Bevis says:

      It’s any kind of “-ism” that is to blame, if it involves infinite growth on a finite planet. Capitalism, communism, socialism, agriculture, theocracy, all kinds of -isms are to blame if they involve extracting resources from the biosphere and giving pollution back. It’s not doom, it’s just mathematics, and biological necessity.
      Learn of the exponential function, and EROEI (energy return on energy invested). It will become obvious that the current set of living arrangements are completely unsustainable.
      The Consciousness of Sheep blog by Tim Watkins is very good on many aspects of the required collapse that is coming:

      All species go through a period of growth, overshoot and collapse (read Overshoot by William Catton). It happens all the time, it is just that in a balanced world there a series of checks and balances (prey predators, diseases, climate variations, etc) that prevent them having an effect on the total biosphere, such that they are very often not even noticeable. Think rabbits and myxomatosis if you like. Collapse is a very normal process, so it’s not to be feared, merely adapted to.

      The difference this time though is that it is the entire planetary biosphere at risk, not just one county, country or continent. We’e slaughtered 70% of all wildlife between 1970 and 2016, and are using a year’s worth of resources within 6 months each year. On average, if you’re a typical American you’re using 5 planets of resources a year. Covid-19 happened because we encroached into nature too much. There are around 100,000 other Covid diseases out there, any of which could transfer to humans as we chop down more forests and jungle to feed the ever expanding population of humans and their pets. Basically there isn’t much nature left to destroy, when 96% of mammals on the planet are humans and their 25 billion pet cows, goat, pigs and sheep, and 70% of birds are chickens.

      If you could take all your food, water, heat and light energy for a year and consumed it in the first 6 months of the year, what would you do for the remaining 6 months? Do as we’re doing now, borrow it from the future? It’s a ponzi scheme, this whole civilisation lark, and won’t end well (if growth, economics and standards of living are your measure of success.). What is interesting is what comes afterwards.

      This is one narrative
      (a bit dated, as we now know there is no solution to climate change, aka runaway abrupt climate chaos)
      Chris Smaje at Small Farm Future is discussing another narrative in the link I posted above.

      I’m quite looking forward to end of neo-liberalism, the sooner it happens the less pain the planet will feel. It is quite clear to anyone who cares to look that the current system is failing 99% of the world’s population, so why wouldn’t you want to be rid of it? And it’s unfixable, the current economic and political system is beyond reform, it needs replacing, and damned fast! For better or worse, Gaia is going to do the replacing if we don’t step up to the challenge and do it first.

      And collapse doesn’t have to do with climate change, that is merely a symptom of the predicament we are in. Here’s some maths:
      90% chance of societal collapse due to deforestation and over-population
      reported here:
      some great art here:

      Even the civil service is getting the idea:

      and for a deeper understanding:

      Enjoy the ride……

    3. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Yes, you’re right, John. I think there’s more than an element of catastrophising at work here in popular culture, which contributes to the social anxieties that have increasingly disempowered us and increased our dependency on ‘authorities’. Perhaps, for disciplinary purposes, the effects of the various ‘crises’ we face have been magnified or exaggerated and our coping skills underestimated.

      I also wonder whether the millenarianism of the degrowth lobby (the belief that some impending major cataclysm or transformative event calls for radical changes in the way we live) is not itself an expression of a will to power, a charismatic gnosticism that inspires devotion in others.

  4. Malcolm Fraser says:

    Genesis 1:28: “subdue the earth and have dominion over it”. The root, the Genesis.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      To be fair, the imperative in Genesis 1:28 is threefold; it’s to subdue, have dominion over, AND REPLENISH the earth. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God gives man a stewardship-cum-conservation role in His creation.

      1. Malcolm Fraser says:

        Only King James says “replenish” – all other translations I see require us, at that point, to “fill the earth and subdue it” or very similar. So “replenish” means with us and our doings. We’ve filled it full o oor shite and it is sudued.

        1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          Yep; you’re right, Malcolm. I’ve checked. The Hebrew word that the KJB translates as ‘replenish’ is ‘mālē’, which means ‘fill’. I’m embarrassedly guilty of anachronism.

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