The Entropy of Capitalism and the Food System

Following the review of his book I have posted on this website before, below is an interview I recently recored with Robert Biel. In this interview, we explore some of the themes already presented in the book, such as the idea that capitalism lives off environments that are incompatible with itself (an idea often featured in literature on the commodification of the commons, which traces back to Rosa Luxemburg). However, the discussion also centres on a more recent work which Robert presented at a conference, in which he undertook a groundbreaking application of the concept of entropy to trace a link between capitalism and the physical condition of the soil. As capitalism promotes a shift to mechanized agriculture that reproduces the standard of control experienced in factories, the use of chemical fertilizers depletes soil structure. To make up for the ensuing loss of fertility, even more fertilizer tends to be applied, in a spiral that is surely unsustainable. Showing his eye for architectural issues (Robert is, after all, a political economist working at UCL’s School of Architecture, i.e. the Bartlett), he envisages a new integration of urban landscapes into the web of food production through extensive use of urban agriculture. This, it seems, may open promising routes to take some pressure off rural agriculture, and gradually reintroduce organic methods.

Resistance to Empire: The Peasant Way

The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization, Earthscan (London), 2008

by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg

In The New Peasantries, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg offers a masterful depiction of the inner workings of Empire. In this respect, his work is a much-needed extension of the magnum opus by Hardt and Negri. In fact, it looks at Empire not so much through a focus on “boundary shifts located at the outer borders and on the politico-military aspects that are associated with them” (p. 235), but rather in its inner workings as an ordering principle.

In this respect, van der Ploeg focuses specifically on the changes occurring in the field of food and farming, where Empire appears as a “complex, multilayered, expanding and increasingly monopolistic set of connections (i.e. a coercive network) that ties processes, places, people and products together in a specific way” (p. 255). In particular, this re-patterning of food production in agriculture occurs in a way that suppresses all forms of agency beyond those which can be controlled at a distance from the core of the imperial constellation. In this respect, the many peasant innovations aimed at enabling the co-production of man and nature are systematically suppressed – if not outright outlawed – in favour of practices that streamline and engineer food production in ways that enable the syphoning of value towards the core, understood as the space from which control and access to the flows associated with production and consumption are determined. Read more

Commoning against entropy: a review of “The Entropy of Capitalism”

The Entropy of Capitalism, BRILL (Leiden-Boston), 2012

by Robert Biel

A diverse, rhizome-like network of commoning experiments that allow the free deployment of human capacity and creativity is what a post-capitalist future holds, according to Robert Biel, author of “The Entropy of Capitalism” and Senior Lecturer at UCL’s Development Planning Unit at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Biel comes to this conclusion after presenting a rigorous analysis of modern-day capitalism through the lens of the laws of thermodynamics. His reasoning starts from the principle that any system requires energy to function. So long as it is able to obtain that energy from its environment and dissipate any waste into the same environment, the system may reproduce itself. Problems arise, however, as the environment’s capacity to offer resources to/receive waste from the system’s metabolism is exhausted. At that point, the system effectively becomes closed and does not escape the second law of thermodynamics, which states that a closed system is subject to increasing entropy (i.e. the energy in that system goes from an “orderly”, useable form to a “disorderly” unuseable form), causing a progressive depletion of the system’s energy. Read more

Tropical Commodities as Tradeable Assets

This post follows in the tracks of my ongoing interest for the political economy of food. In this interview, which I carried out with Peter Robbins, author of Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster, I have tried to find out a bit more about the “transformation” (to quote Bruno Latour) of commodities into tradeable assets. It has been a really interesting experience to hear from a former trader in tropical commodities about how food – by being turned into “paper” – can actually end up in the balance sheet of a financial institution!

Yanis Varoufakis on the Greek Bailout

Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis is a vociferous critic of the current bailouts of Greece that bring back memories of Structural Adjustment Programmes and the ensuing production of a new Third World in Southern Europe. In this short documentary, he warns against this process, by warning that the all-too-common story of German industrious ants and Greek lazy grasshoppers has remained what it was since Aesopus first elaborated this imagery in one of his fables. A story. However, it is one that is being used to push savage reforms that might – in the end – do little to improve anyone’s lot.

Yanis Varoufakis on the Greek Bailout

Coca Cola’s Encounter With Global Constitutionalism

My Sunday started today with attendance of the London Socialist Film Co-Op, a venue offering monthly screenings of documentaries on various topics. As someone familiar with Gunther Teubner’s  ideas on global constitutionalism, I thought German Gutierrez’s and Carmen Garcia’s documentary on the Coca Cola case offered, as it did, some interesting points for consideration. Read more