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.

Biel ascribes a twofold meaning to entropy. On the one hand, entropy has to do with the transformation of physical resources. In this sense, capitalism as a system now runs against the grain of environmental depletion and climate change, and the inability for the natural environment to take more pollution from human economic activities. Entropy, however, also refers to the ability to process information. In other words, as the system loses its ability to process diverse information and transform itself accordingly, it becomes responsive to only a narrow set of conditions and produces an even narrower set of responses that increase its fragility. So, for example, Biel looks at the progressive inability of the system of capitalism to process information that contradicts its basic core-periphery dynamics and becomes caught in a spiral of financial instability and militarisation. This occurs because, on the one hand, finance – by reaping profits from risk – offers distorted feedback by promoting the multiplication of risk through speculation, thereby muffling the stabilising feedback about the unsustainability of capitalist accumulation (which requires constant dissipation into an environment, which effectively becomes a “periphery”). Militarisation, on the other hand, is the response of late capitalist regimes to the increase in feedback which the system is unable to process and which is therefore bagged as chaos and subject to militaristic repression.

The way out, for Biel, is the transition to a low-input/low-output system that re-aligns the economic system with environmental feedback. The scenario offered by Biel, based on network-like interaction by communities invested in the creation of commons, would allow the reinstatement of meaningful diversity. This should unlock the full power of human capacity, which Biel effectively considers an important energetic resource, so as to reduce the burden on the natural environment (precisely by using more capacity), as well as to increase the amount of information which the system is able to process.

Overall, “the Entropy of Capitalism” constitutes an important contribution to the debate on the (un)sustainability of capitalism, and offers an interesting complement to similar theories, like Gunther Teubner’s idea of “systemic addiction”. The book is very thoroughly researched, and made even more interesting by the author’s own involvement in transition initiatives (like Transition Town Brixton) and the urban agriculture movement. The only drawback I found is the absurd price of the hardcover edition (I paid 100 pounds for an ebook version), which effectively amounts to price-censorship of ideas that are very worth spreading. A paperback edition, however, is due to come out this October.