By Ekaterina Chertkovskaya and Alexander Paulsson
Corporations are the cogwheels in the machinery that makes up capitalism. By dragging peoples and environments into its mode of production, corporations satisfy their profit-hunger and disastrous growth-ambitions.
In our recent article we conceptualize the destructive forces of the capitalist mode of production as corporate violence. Corporate violence helps to showcase how organizations are inflicting violence as part of their routine operations, while pointing to the intricacies of how violence is structurally organized.
The capitalist ‘mode of production’ might come across as an old adage from the 1970s. But unlike that former usage of the term, we do not see it as some extra-human power that shape societies, organizations and life-trajectories. David Graeber blew off the dust from this concept, claiming that the capitalist mode of production was actually about the production of humans, of subjectivities, and this is what is at stake when it comes to transforming capitalism.
Whereas the notion of violence has been used to scandalize certain actions by corporations (or inactions, as it were), we think the narrower concept of corporate violence is more apt to discuss and identify the contours of violence conducted by corporations as part of their ordinary operations. Corporate violence is therefore not just about organizational failure, managerial malpractice, or the forces of nature. Instead, it indicates violence of a more systemic kind, which goes in hand with the pursuit of economic growth, corporate profit-seeking and capitalism. Such violence is not always immediately visible and its consequences may take years or even decades to unfold. But, it is destructive nonetheless.
Marxism views capitalism as violent in at least two ways: capitalism is essentially based on violence, but it also perpetuates violence, albeit often in obscured and ‘civilized’ forms. Étienne Balibar argues that violence remains undertheorized and not thoroughly coupled with other Marxist concepts. We try to come to grips with this in our article, drawing on the notions of primitive accumulation and social metabolism to theorize violence.
Delving into primitive accumulation and social metabolism
Marx himself used the term primitive accumulation to denote ‘the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’ and saw it as the ‘prehistoric stage of capital and the mode of production corresponding with it.’ Rosa Luxemburg, and many other theorists joining her since, argued that primitive accumulation is not an incidental deviation from the norm in capitalism, but is absolutely foundational to its functioning and to capital accumulation. Because economic growth requires the continuous expansion of markets and new commodity frontiers, primitive accumulation always accompanies capitalism.
Social metabolism, in turn, has the capacity to explain how violence is perpetuated in capital accumulation. By incorporating both exploitation of labour and ecological destruction, social metabolism points to how corporate violence operates at the nexus between social and natural systems. With unequal exchange and unequal ecological exchange of global trade, the social metabolism of capitalism not only leads to the destruction of local habitats and unjust globalization, but labour’s alienation and exploitation require the exploitation and alienation of nature, too. The understanding of social metabolism in ecological economics complements this. Drawing on the second law of thermodynamics, it highlights that compound economic growth always comes with growth in biophysical throughput. Furthermore, social metabolism shows how violence to natural systems will be inherent to any social system that is aimed at infinite expansion of production.
Violence in productive forces
Understanding violence through the lenses of primitive accumulation and social metabolism, we can see how corporate violence is manifested within the productive forces of capitalism, namely natural ‘resources’, labour, technology and money. Let us give you one example.
As you’re reading this text, there’s probably a smartphone nearby. It must have gone through a fairly long ‘value’ chain to reach you, starting from minerals extraction somewhere in Congo, where mining destroys landscapes and relies on working conditions that can only be described as modern slavery. Other materials used in this device – whether steel or plastics – also stem from extractivist and fossil-dependent economies of violence. Your smartphone was also probably assembled in a massive militarized industrial factory, like Foxconn, where the working conditions are intense and dehumanizing. Having finally reached you after its long-term travels involving lots of burnt fossil fuels, the mobile device is actively used for many things, becoming part of you, in a way.
Beyond communication with family, friends and colleagues, the smartphone is used for all sorts of transactions and even possibly paying off debts through your bank, which, like the finance sector more generally, is likely to be investing into the fossil economy. No matter how you like your device, planned obsolescence has also been designed into it, so in a couple of years you’ll have to change it to be able to carry out all the routines that’s hard to imagine daily life without. Once disposed of, your device will probably be shipped somewhere to the Global South, becoming hazardous waste to be handled by people whose livelihoods have been intervened in so much that this is the only way to earn a living.
The example is hypothetical, but it points to violence across almost every web of production surrounding us, something that we map in much more detail in the article for each of the productive forces of capitalism. Visualizing violence this way might be shocking and come across as scandalizing, but we should not despair. Instead, we argue for understanding violence as inherent to capitalism and for joining forces to build alternatives outside this system.
The alternative of degrowth
Degrowth offers such an alternative. It is an umbrella term that gathers a diverse set of theories and principles, united by the vision of going away from growth and capitalism, and putting ecological sustainability and social justice at the centre of social organization. We suggest that its core ideas can guide us on the way towards a post-capitalist society, where the productive forces are radically transformed. First of all, organizations must be much more embedded in the communities they operate in than is the case today. Collective and equitable forms of ownership and organizing need to come to the forefront, for example cooperatives, commons and community-run organizations. Although these forms of ownership avoid separation of labour from the means of production, they do not automatically imply a regenerative social metabolism and can also reproduce an expansionist economic logic.
Nature is to be understood not as a resource but as an ecosystem that may be used to support a regenerative social metabolism. This means going fossil-fuel free, away from extractivism and using renewable energy or bio-based materials to satisfy democratically decided upon material needs. Work is to be decentred, working hours reduced, and labour decommodified and democratically organized. Technology is de-fetishized in a post-capitalist society. Instead of serving in the interest of capital and economic growth, technology is developed and used to support regenerative social metabolism and made to be convivial. Money is to be produced and used in ways that break with the primitive accumulation of current credit-based currencies and fractional reserve banking. This would involve public control of money and a myriad of community-based currencies, designed with the aim of building and supporting social relationships.
We argue that degrowth must tap into and join hands with many grassroots movements already out there. Coalition-building and new alliances are necessary to end corporate violence and to start the journey towards a sustainable and just post-capitalist society.
Ekaterina Chertkovskaya is a researcher in degrowth and critical organisation studies based at Lund University. Together with Stefania Barca and Alexander Paulsson, she has co-edited ‘Towards a Political Economy of Degrowth’ (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). She is also a member of the editorial collective of ephemera journal.
Alexander Paulsson (PhD, MA) teaches and writes about political economy, the politics of ecology, and the making and consequences of science and technology. Being trained in the fields of history, politics and business, he combines the study of the urban environment, administrative devices and ecological processes with the history of economic and political concepts.
This post was originally published in Work in Progress: a public sociology blog for the American Sociological Association.
Source of the image: Fridays for future – global climate strike on the European elections (May 24 2019). Author: Markus Spiske via unsplash.com.