Robert Biel: The Entropy of Capitalism

by tigermanifesto

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I first learned of Robert Biel from a quotation from him that Kerspeldebeb put on the back of The Communist Necessity. What a mystery it is how I hadn’t heard of him before, considering my insatiable interest in environmental history and its intersection with Marxist political economy. And here there was a political ecologist who had been doing significant work on Eurocentrism, imperialism, and now general systems theory in a thoroughly materialist vein. Having now read it, I can affirm that The Entropy of Capitalism, published by Haymarket, fulfilled my expectations and more. I am actually eager to revisit it after a brief respite so that I can use some of its concepts in a more rigorous way in my own historical writing.

One reason why this book might have wallowed in unjustified obscurity is its imposing ad copy. Haymarket sells it as a book about general systems theory intersecting with Marxism and thermodynamics, which sounds almost too esoteric. What is remarkable, however, is that the book is aimed squarely at a concrete study of the most important issues facing humanity in the twenty-first century: the decay of capitalism and what that might mean for the viability of society and, on the other hand, potential spaces for revolutionary work that are opening up because of capitalism’s lack of a new accumulation regime. In other words, capitalism is intellectually and institutionally bankrupt, increasingly running up against the objective limits of cheap energy and unlimited growth, and is as such consuming itself and, if we are not swift and merciless in our work against it, the basis of flourishing human life itself. “Socialism or barbarism” expanded from a slogan to a dense and relevant study.

But what do thermodynamics, information, and other parts of systems theory have to contribute to Biel’s Marxist political economy? As I read, it became clear that there are three main systems working in the book: capitalism, the human world, and the ecosphere in general. The first two, obviously, are mostly inseparable at this point, given that capitalism is the word for the current way that the human race metabolizes natural resources and processes them in production, distribution, and consumption. Being a good Marxist, however, Biel recognizes the unique human capacity for adaptation, which runs beyond the limits that capitalism attempts to enforce. His discussions use thermodynamics and information theory, along with references to cybernetics, free software literature, and other intellectual “sites of resistance’ to articulate the relationship between self-generating human society and the capitalist forces that parasitize upon it.

A large part of this is a reevaluation of neoliberalism as a “systemic turn” in capitalism, a shift from the centralized, modernistic/Fordist model of monopoly capitalism to an approach that attempts to unleash informal and self-regulating human capacities in order to profit off of them. Everything from “Japanese management” to privatization dogmas to microfinance constitutes an attempt––a last attempt, if Biel is right––to construct a stable accumulation regime that allows capitalism to function as smoothly as possible. These moves, which on the surface look like they bolster local and individual freedoms, are in fact dangerous energies that capitalism has to maintain within an enclosure preventing them from overrunning the boundaries capitalism finds acceptable. Seen through a thermodynamic lens, it is easy to see how this is a doomed proposition, as the system attempts to extract more energy from the informal sector and human intellectual capacities while also spending more and more energy containing them with militarist regimes, etc. This leads Biel into a spellbinding and illuminating account of post-1998 militarism as it develops in the core of the capitalist system and produces an “order” that encourages the chaotic tendencies of capitalism in order to justify its own repressive reflex.

The most important area of the book for me, however, is how the notion of entropy and the concept of peripheries in imperialism studies overlap throughout the book. In Biel’s political ecology, the environment and the Third World––along with enclaves within the First World and women and minority populations––are sites of both extraction, the outsides that capitalism can use for resources, and as dumping sites for entropy. Entropy takes a multitude of forms. Material forms include pollution, carbon emissions, radioactive material, and so on. Social manifestations of entropy include all kinds of social degradation and chaos. Entropy is exported along with capital, though often in unexpected ways. Witness the United States, for instance, which itself absorbs a huge amount of social entropy that is not ameliorated by social safety nets or an extensive welfare state, producing urban decay and unbounded tensions between population groups. As we’ve seen in recent years, the militarization of America is as much internal as it is external, with the system, personified by its individual rulers and private firms, expends more and more energy into containing the immense social potential of the population and channeling it into capitalist uses.

Biel’s range of intellectual references is staggering, but all of it is united by a singular and rigorous method founded in dialectical materialism. Speculative invention of concepts or futuristic stargazing are kept to an absolute minimum, and though the picture given in the book often feels bleak, it is never unjustified or alarmist. Its fundamental message, that capitalism can never operate in an equilibrium with its environment or its social peripheries and is doomed either to be overthrown or to drag humanity down into an abyss, is troubling. But we can see oppositional and revolutionary tendencies developing in embryo throughout the world, especially where the contradictions with the environment and the peripheries are the strongest––in India, especially––and this leaves us with a basic strategy for toppling capitalism in a controlled demolition rather than in a spectacular implosion. I have left much unmentioned in this brief write-up, including the whole discussion of how militarism operates, the necessity of revolutionizing agriculture, and the equation of entropy with homogenization––but I would encourage all Marxists and those interested in political ecology to give this book a read. It is certainly difficult, but more than worth the investment in time and effort because of its immense contribution to our understanding of capitalism in this time of crisis.