The following interview with political geographer Martín Arboleda was carried out as part of the “Beyond Extraction” (BE) project – a venue for researchers, writers, artists, and activists to share and collaborate on efforts to critique extraction – which has been supported by an Antipode Foundation International Workshop Award. Arboleda’s understanding of contemporary extraction beyond the limits of a bounded site, and his reading of it instead as a global-scale infrastructural network, have not only been central to the framing of the BE project, but also, in more general terms, instrumental in outlining a diverse range of methods, fields, and geographies within a conceptual apparatus that stands against global extractivism. In the conversation, conducted over Zoom during late 2020, we discussed his recent book, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism (Verso, 2020) alongside the challenges introduced by the ongoing pandemic.
Mariano Gomez-Luque and Julia Smachylo, Harvard Graduate School of Design
- We would like to begin by addressing one of the most interesting aspects of Planetary Mine, which we see as the deployment of an alternative critical syntax – a constellation of key terms and concepts through which to theorize extraction as such. Just as you organized each of the book’s chapters around a specific term or “keyword”, we would like to formulate our questions following the same approach. Can you elaborate on the organizational structure of the book, and on the challenges of articulating a specific conceptual vocabulary or lexicon to grasp the complex dynamics (both theoretical and empirical) at play in contemporary resource extraction?
This is a really interesting question and one that for me was fundamental in writing the book. One of my main inspirations has been the “form-analysis” tradition, which unfolds an immanent critique of capitalism through the concepts and categories we typically use to grasp it, such as money, labor, rent, profit, and so forth. Also, in his 1971 book Marxism and Form, Fredric Jameson suggests that dialectical thinking is historical in a twofold sense. Not only are the phenomena that dialectical thinking works with properly historical (processes of social and economic transformation), but the concepts that dialectical thinking works with are also historical insofar as they become veritable terrains of struggle over meaning, hegemony, and power. Dialectical thinking, therefore, needs to unfreeze concepts – to investigate their meaning as an historical process in its own right.
For example, Jameson argues that it’s not the same to speak about landed property in antiquity than it is to speak of landed property in feudalism or the hacienda system in Latin America, or let’s say in the era of gentrification and Airbnb. Landed property has assumed very different forms, and has given rise to very different social relations in each of these social formations. Wallerstein’s (1991) invitation to unthink the social sciences is also relevant in this regard. Although social scientists tend to be inclined to always rethink, Wallerstein claims that unthinking involves a deeper, more reflexive process of unlearning deeply entrenched understandings of the social world. Concepts such as core/periphery, unequal exchange, and imperialism, for example, exert a definitive historical burden on studies of extraction, and have been to some extent frozen in time. Perhaps the challenge in critical studies of extraction is not to rethink these concepts as such, but to begin by challenging ahistorical and common-sense understandings of them. That’s one of the arguments of open Marxism and the form-analysis tradition as well. Open Marxism is not only a critical reconstruction and a critical exploration of social reality itself, but of the very conceptuality that we use to make sense of that reality. Of course, as you suggest, every chapter of the book is concerned with some of the key concepts that to some extent condition or have a direct repercussion on the ways in which raw materials are extracted, circulated, and consumed in a capitalistic economy.
Let’s take “labor” as an example. It has widely heterogeneous manifestations in the geographies of extraction, from chattel slavery in the plantation system, to indentured labor in the Potosí silver mines, to subcontracted, outsourced work in the contemporary mine. Here there is this patchwork of combined and uneven development where you have indentured labor for coal extraction in the Democratic Republic of Congo, coexisting within high tech, scientific labor in capital-intensive copper extraction, let’s say in South America, Australia, or Asia. What does it mean to unpack, to open this black box of labor? This is part of the effort that goes along with addressing the conceptuality of extraction.
Something similar happens with established ideas of imperialism, of finance, of trade, and so forth. The dynamics that enabled the transport of silver and gold through the Atlantic Ocean in the 16th century cannot be just extrapolated to the financial dynamics that now enable raw materials to travel throughout the Pacific towards spaces of manufacturing in East Asia. When we unpack concepts like finance, labor, transport, imperialism, we are able to grasp the intrinsic dynamism of not only the capitalist mode of production, but of social life as well. The same thing goes for the forms of political struggle that unfold in the margins as well as for contestations of these geographies of extraction. The chapters of the book, of course, are not a historical analysis as such; they just attempt to unpack the black box of each of these concepts.
- Planetary Mine inscribes itself, as you just pointed out, within the lineage of critical thought known as “form-analysis Marxism”, which seeks to illuminate the forms or modes of existence of capital as an impersonal, abstract logic of domination. Within this overall frame, the planetary mine is conceived not as a discrete artifact but as a system encompassing manifold (social, political-economic, technological, spatial, and even subjective) processes. What new realms of inquiry does this conception of capital as “alienated subject” open up for critical studies of extraction?
Moishe Postone’s (1993) categorical critique of capitalism was for me a fundamental orientation for writing the book. I think it was Patrick Murray (2020) who put it very clearly in a recent article on Postone, in which he argues that there is a persistent economic deficit in the critical theory tradition that originates in the Frankfurt School. By making instrumental reason and instrumental action the central object of critique, it sidelined a more thorough study of the inner workings and contradictions of the capitalist economy, and so the economy became transformed into a sort of black box. The tradition of critical theory has seldom bothered to “reproduce by means of thought” the categories that Marx developed in his critique of political economy, such as rent, value, profit, money, and labor. One of the major contributions of Postone has therefore been to pry open the black box of the capitalist economy and take seriously the categorical critique that Marx developed in his mature work by looking into the actual technical material operation of the capitalist economy. Postone’s idea of capital as alienated subject points towards these modes of systemic social interdependence that are enabled by globalization in its advanced or late stage. This was also very useful for me in terms of exploring the lens of extraction beyond what is a seemingly self-contained object such as the mine. In this sense, the book is in line with recent calls for thinking about an expanded conception of extractivism put forward by authors such as Verónica Gago in Latin America, but also by Saskia Sassen, Mazen Labban, Brett Neilson and Sandro Mezzadra in Anglophone academia.
The project to develop an enlarged or expanded conception of extractivism is an urgent one. The very idea of extractivism is framed in terms of the conflicts that take place between the company, local communities, and the state. That triad is the default level of analysis of many studies of extractivism. If you expound the problem of systematic social interdependence, however, you start to ask: okay, so what are the conduits and pathways that bring together and reproduce the entire mechanism? What kinds of infrastructures? What kind of ports, transport technologies, debt instruments, laboring bodies, and haulage systems are required for the extractive industries to exist in the first place? You also cannot think of spaces of resource extraction without thinking about spaces of mass consumerism, and how minerals circulate in global economic space in trains, pipelines, trucks, bulk carrier ships, and so forth. Processes that have enabled these new forms of interdependence between spaces of extraction in Latin America and spaces of manufacturing in China, or Asia, broadly, are basically the result of a new emphasis, or corporate approach, toward speed, homeostasis, and flow in primary commodity production. So the first technological and organizational underpinnings for this were technologies for mineral traceability and supply chain mapping. The geopolitical dimension of this process is crucial, as East Asian economies have been at the forefront of innovations in shipping technologies that have enabled the Pacific Ocean to emerge as the main infrastructural corridor for the transnational trade of raw materials.
- We would like to dwell on the question of form a bit more, this time around by linking it with issues of critical representation. You write that mining conceals itself in the everyday and, as such, it becomes “unspectacular, nearly imperceptible”, discontinuous and made up of “disconnected and unhistorical fragments” (p.13). Planetary Mine, then, acts as a call to reveal these hidden linkages, “to overcome the fetish of the commodity and to make these manifold metabolic mediations visible and conceptually intelligible” (ibid.). Are current modes or forms of representation or media adequate to make visible these otherwise hidden relationships? The book includes a single map, that of the logistical footprint of large-scale mining through a material flow via Capesize bulk carriers departing from Chilean ports to various processing facilities around the world. As an emergent planetary consciousness shifts our vision towards a new analytic that moves us beyond resource nationalism, how might various points of struggle [currently exacerbated all over the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has intensified and openly exposed conditions of structural racism as well as gender and economic inequality] be interpreted as a form of collective cognition or revolutionary subjectivity, expressed through new modes of mapping and/or storytelling?
That’s a very interesting question which connects with the previous one, because first you have Postone saying that the social determination of capital as the subject of history entails the existence of these systematic forms of human and technological interdependence at the global scale. The question that follows is: how do we make sense of these relations of systematic interdependence? Of course, it is a very complex question – as Fredric Jameson argues in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992), the complexity of the social totality in the period of late capitalism surpasses any human possibility for coherent representation. I mean, we cannot actually pin down our own position within this black map that is the capitalist world-system in the same way that, let’s say, someone in the 18th century eventually could.
In the era of globalization, the possibility of mapping our own position in the world system is broken. Nonetheless, as Jameson (1992: 3) says, we have to try and do so. As he puts it, “in the intent to hypothesize, in the desire called cognitive mapping – therein lies the beginning of wisdom”. The map of bulk carrier trade routes that is at the beginning of the book depicts the flows of copper and mineral trade that flow from the Atacama Desert of Chile towards all the spaces of manufacturing in Asia. In this very simple act of representation, this map cannot elaborate a full picture of all of the trajectories of the resource economy in Chile. But it nonetheless points at how the lives of industrial manufacturing workers in China and other countries in Asia have become materially connected to ecosystems and workers in the resource extraction sector in Chile. And of course it also articulates with the idea of Maria Mies’ book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986), where she argues that the sexual and international division of labor of Western housewives in the United States are materially connected to, and yet at the same time subjectively fragmented from, the manufacturing worker. The two of them don’t know each other, but the existence of one is the condition of existence for the other. The same can be said of contemporary spaces of extraction: we cannot think of these major, transgenic soybean plantations in the Chaco region of Argentina or the copper production system without the emergence of these huge manufacturing cities in China. The work of the Urban Theory Lab (UTL) has been pioneering in this sense, in creating geospatial representations of spaces of land-use change. Ecological degradation and logistics infrastructure have created the vantage points for understanding some of the features of the world system. And to map it to some extent allows for some light to be shed into this global system of social and ecological interdependence.
But apart from geospatial methodologies and tools, it’s very interesting to see how there’s been some grassroots initiatives to create alternative representational strategies. You see this for example in the manuals for counter-mapping developed by the Iconoclasistas collective in Latin America. A kind of do-it-yourself collective territorial mapping and documentation for Indigenous and urban communities seeking to reveal the nature and extent of processes of deforestation, ecological degradation, and expulsion. And so it’s very interesting how, from a very grassroots perspective, we can see the emergence of new methods of counter-representation that serve to re-channel dominant narratives and relations of power. There is yet another mode of radical representation that has also been hugely compelling, and which comes from feminist traditions in Latin America: the idea of the body-territory. Scholars such as Rita Segato, Verónica Gago, and Astrid Ulloa have developed this idea of the body as territory to suggest that the bodies of women inhabiting these polluted places in dangerous zones of extraction are to some extent a microcosm and methodological device for understanding the operations of capital in a more general sense. So you see these various efforts of counter-mapping unfolding at different scales. I think it’s fascinating to see how they develop from the geospatial to the bodily dimension.
- At the very center of your reading of extraction lies the thorny question of value, understood as “the pulsing engine that drives the process of environment-making in contemporary society” (p.248). Making an analytical distinction between the essence of capital (that is, the movement of value) and its various forms of appearance (profit, rent, even politics as such), you claim, is essential not only to understand the extended geographies of the planetary mine, but also to unravel (and eventually to abolish) the abstract logic that operates as its driving force. Could you expand on this insight? Why is the deconstruction of value central to an immanent critique of extraction?
The whole discussion on value is so intricate and at times would seem to be so abstract and otherworldly. But for me, focusing on value has a direct and concrete methodological implication: the mine is, first and foremost, a product of human labor. This tends to be occluded by the fact that most scholarship on extraction is usually underpinned by a politicist worldview that posits the dynamics of primary commodity production to originate in the international political relations of the nation state – not in the materiality of the capitalist labor process. This has led to a traditional emphasis on questions of imperialism and dependency; important questions that need to be historicized, reconsidered, and unfolded. But in my view, looking at resource extraction through the prism of value forces you to consider the actual materiality of social existence and the lived reality of class and work (both waged and non-waged) as well as to examine the material organization of the productive process as embodied in technologies, machineries, infrastructure, the laboring body, and of course, class power.
Also, mobilizing value as a methodological device reveals the fact that capital, according to Marx, is value in process – rather than value in motion, as it’s usually considered. Why value in process? Because value is always an incomplete entity: you have your land and your means of production, but if you don’t extract the minerals, you’re doomed. You extract your minerals from the ground, but if you don’t take the copper, the iron ore to the market swiftly or safely enough, you’re doomed. So value has to be realized in the market for it to function as capital. Looking at value in terms of this dynamic, crisis-ridden substance that achieves concrete actuality in production, circulation, exchange, and distribution is also a very relevant methodological strategy for tearing open the methodological lens and to render visible the expanded geography of extraction. This is what underpins my more recent work on “circuits of extraction” – the idea that we have to shift from an emphasis on places of extraction, to an emphasis on circuits of extraction (Arboleda 2020). This means looking at the political economy of resource extraction in terms of an intricate web encompassing the various metamorphoses that capital undergoes in the course of its lifecycle – from the mine shaft to smelter, from smelter to factory, and from factory to market.
- In the book you articulate a critique of the late liberal state as “a fetishized form of existence of capitalist relations” – a form which is historically specific and has evolved together with capitalism itself (p.112). In its current configuration, you suggest, the state plays a central role in subsuming the policy frameworks, planning instruments, and urban geographies underpinning extraction processes within the global, all-encompassing umbrella of the world-trade apparatus, which with its socio-technical infrastructures and spatial technologies of circulation, de facto enables a mode of accumulation of capital that is “global in content but national in form” (p.138). Could you elaborate on this understanding of the state as a key agent in articulating both the national and the global scale of extraction? And more generally still: within your framework of analysis, is there a transformative role for the state – broadly understood as a collective self-legislation or institutional organization of social life-activities – in terms of moving towards a post-extraction stage?
The question of the state is fundamental because Planetary Mine is to a large extent inspired by critical readings that try to understand the dynamics of geo-economic transformation associated with the New International Division of Labor (NIDL). Not in terms of the outcome of the political relations of the nation state, but of the actual unfolding of the class relations, which is a process that not only supersedes the nation state in geographical scope, but is ontologically prior to the nation state as such. That might sound a bit abstract, but I want to ground the argument by saying that it’s also a way of unpacking a tradition of “dependency theory” in Latin America that argued that we cannot understand dynamics of dependency between core and peripheral regions without first understanding the domestic class relations and the transnational map of class antagonism – for example, how local bourgeoisies have interests that are more aligned with new foreign bourgeoisies. This resonates with some more contemporary readings that have developed a dialectical and more nuanced understanding of the role of the state in the world system.
But to be clear: to posit the transnational nature of class relations doesn’t mean adopting the hyper-globalist idea that the state is irrelevant or that the state has withered away. Contemporary readings of the NIDL have helped grasp this idea of the world system as being global in content and national in form. So, on the one hand we have advanced a functional integration in the world economy through the logistics revolution. And on the other hand, we have this tendency towards spatial fragmentation via the emergence of new, militarized borders and ports, as well as the racialization of labor in these spaces of industrial production and extraction. This contradictory tendency has also been made possible by the transformation of the institutional materiality of the state towards the internationalization of state power through, in the case of the logistics turn and extractive industries, the emergence of trans-Pacific frameworks for intergovernmental cooperation and territorial governance – of the sort that have made possible infrastructure megaprojects such as the Belt and Road Initiative in China, and the IIRSA (Iniciativa para la Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana) in South America.
Now, speaking about the emancipatory possibilities of the state, it’s very interesting how the pandemic has opened up many avenues for new radical visions towards what the state apparatus can do or should do in a process of transformation. And there have been, in addition, many powerful ideas generated around the Green New Deal. It’s interesting how, for example, the idea of the Green New Deal in the Anglo-European world, and of the Pacto Ecosocial del Sur in South America, have been inspired by eco-socialist movements which tend to be informed by struggles taking place in resource frontiers, as well as by people who are focusing on environmental pollution in their communities. There is also Andreas Malm’s (2020) notion of “ecological Leninism” and how the state is the only actor with the capacity to curb the destructive power of oil and mineral extraction companies. And so there’s been a shift, I think, in the mentality of critical thought and radical politics toward a more institutionalist orientation in the sense that you need to strategically harness state power and state institutions to achieve any sort of meaningful change.
- In your investigation on the transformations of urban space and lived experience in the Huasco Valley, you sharply highlight how the increasing use of financial instruments – and more generally, how the ubiquitous financial logic traversing the planetary mine – both dehumanizes living labor and empties nature itself of its content, rendering their inherent (“human” and “natural”) attributes “universally equivalent via the price mechanism” (p.179). Could you expand on this understanding of finance as the mediated expression of the real subsumption of nature to capital? What are the structural yet largely “unseen” links between finance, nature, and labor that are exposed by reading financialization as a way of organizing nature?
The question of finance and money is fundamental in understanding the political economy of primary commodity production for the simple reason that they provide liquidity to material operations in advance of real accumulation. No major infrastructure project for resource extraction could ever be thinkable or viable without first having access to huge flows of liquidity. So, that’s one thing. And the other thing is the idea of the real subsumption of nature to capital – basically the idea developed in the work of Neil Smith (2006) stating that the real subsumption of nature to capital is not that the latter flows around nature, but that it does so through nature. What we’re seeing with various forms of the financialization of primary commodity production is how socio-natural systems and biophysical worlds become packaged into assets that circulate in financial markets and become a source of revenue production in their own right – that is, how they become detached from reality. This is clearly illustrated in Anna Tsing’s (2005) idea of “spectacular accumulation”, where you have this spectacle of an exuberant ecosystem filled with bountiful mineral deposits that is showcased at the stock exchange in Toronto or London, for people to speculate and earn profit from the representation of the deposit. The representation of the deposit becomes reified; it is transformed into a thing, with a life of its own.
Like the real subsumption of nature, it’s also very interesting to see how the credit system percolates different domains or levels of social reality. On the one hand, you see how states become increasingly dependent on foreign investment as a way to finance things like mega infrastructure projects required by resource extraction. And then you have the rise of Asian economies as the main creditor nations for precisely these kinds of infrastructural development for primary commodity production in Latin America. So you have different levels, where first of all there are monetary circuits of sovereign lending. Secondly, the financialization of the mining company is obtained through the rise of aggressive shareholders and institutional investors with a bolder role in corporate governance, who demand higher turnovers from their stocks. This has pushed corporate management to adopt more aggressive strategies to expand and streamline production on the ground. And finally you have yet a third stream of the money circuit, which is the flow of debt instruments and cheap credit into spaces of extraction, where peasants and local communities are brought into the credit system, sometimes issued by mining companies themselves. In some cases, for instance, they fund entrepreneurial initiatives by farmers, artists, and petty commodity producers to gain legitimacy in local communities. But then you also have banks who want to make profits from this situation, going to towns and giving credit cards to everyone, regardless of whether they can pay interest or not. All this makes the financialization of everyday life in these contexts very pervasive and ubiquitous.
- Key in the book is your mobilization of the concept of the planetary. What political-spatial imaginary is invoked when using such a term? And more broadly, what is at stake (what is revealed or made explicit) in framing the very problematique of extraction within the logic of “planetary” as opposed to that of “globalization”?
The question of the planetary is essential, for it problematizes inherited notions of much of globalization theory and globalization studies. And of course, the person who first coined this term was postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2003) via a critique of “the global” as this blue marble that can be easily mapped through a grid of coordinates. But the reality is that through later stages of globalization, we have witnessed the full unraveling of that modern episteme that sees nature and the world as something that can be grasped from the outside or from above. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has strongly placed into focus how eerie, strange, otherworldly this world can get to be sometimes. And this idea of making the world eerie, strange, unknowable, ungraspable, is central to the notion of the planetary, as a way of questioning the hubris of liberal cosmopolitanism. The concept of the planetary has been pushed forward in different ways by different traditions: post-colonial scholars, or Marxist traditions, and STS-oriented literatures, as it for example follows from Bruno Latour’s (2017) recent lectures on Gaia.
Despite the nuances, at the center of many of these approaches is, first, that this world has become strange and we need, maybe not new categories, but to really do the work of reflexive critique to unthink and re-evaluate the concepts that we usually grasp the world with. In this sense, one of the key takeaways for me – at least in the way that I approach the concept in the book – is that the planetary entails several critiques of these standard globalization narratives. Number one: it entails a critique of the idea that the state has withered away – if anything, the planetary is marked by the emergence of strong state authority, like hard borders, nationalist sentiments, and the decline of liberal cosmopolitanism. Second is the idea that liberal cosmopolitanism is the “end of history” – and yet we’ve witnessed the emergence of political extremism and of post-liberal visions of social life. And this is also unique – something that calls directly across worlds of primary commodity production, because during the last two decades we’ve seen an escalation of violence against defenders of the land, of environments, who are being targeted by right-wing paramilitaries, death squads, neo-fascists, and other reactionary groups. And so this is one of the scenarios where you can see the actual collapse of Globalization 1.0, and the rise of a more unstable, more crisis-prone, more turbulent global world system. The work of Teo Ballvé (2020) is crucial in this regard, because he shows that these liberal tropes of development, institution-building, and sustainable governance are strikingly and problematically compatible with paramilitary and genocidal violence. For example, in Brazil or Colombia you have tropes of good practice and good governance alongside death squads who are wiping out Indigenous communities, literally to make room for sustainable investment in green technologies.
The third important element of the planetary is the idea that it has rendered visible the sort of unruly natures that will not yield to these totalizing forces of capitalist expanded reproduction. You can see this through the financialization of nature and in how many mining projects usually break down because there is some environmental collapse or they trigger some dramatic mass resistance movement such as the North Dakota pipeline in the US, or the Pascua Lama gold mine in Chile. In cases of this kind, we see how these initiatives backfire. Nature is not this kind of plastic substance that you can work with and shape in whatever way you want.
City / Non-City
- Following in Gray Brechin’s (2006) steps, you talk about cities as “inverted mines”, bringing to the surface of awareness the city/non-city dialectic at play in the urban spatiality of the planetary mine, polarized on the one hand by the mining-towns of the Chilean Atacama Desert, and by China’s vast urban agglomerations on the other. In so doing, you make explicit the largely invisible (or otherwise hard to grasp) links between the “fantastically alien skylines” of global megacities and the ecologically monstrous processes of extraction – a spatial logic of territorial organization structured around the epistemic city/non-city divide laying at the core of what you refer to as “logistical urbanism”. You go on to ground this form of urbanism in what you describe as an “emerging formation of territorial planning and design … contingent on the production of an entire technological landscape that is functional to the organization of industrial systems for transnational connectivity and the circulation of goods” (p.128-129). Do you see a critical role for planning and – more broadly – for modalities of large-scale design praxis not only in counteracting this pervasive tendency and conceptual divide, but also in envisioning alternative, non-extractive forms of urbanization and environment-making?
Questions of planning and the city, and of non-cities, are fundamental. Just the very fact that there’s been a logistics turn in the extractive industries – where you have an actual material operational integration between sectors that have traditionally worked separately from each other, in a way that is to some extent coordinated – is staggering. This, in and of itself, demands challenging these socio-spatial categories of the city and the non-city, of the urban and the rural, to think more relationally about these processes of economic interdependence. In terms of planning, there’s a lot of enthusiasm going on now on the Left around the idea of hacking these supply chains. Books such as The People’s Republic of Walmart (Phillips and Rozworski 2019) have struck a chord with the Left, especially in terms of the ability of today’s megacorporations to organize production transnationally in a way that is so elaborate, intricate, and efficient. Can the Left hack and harness these capacities for supply-chain mapping, governance, and control? It’s an open, contested question, and a very interesting one. This particular approach has received a lot of criticism from traditions of ecological Marxism. Specifically, Left-accelerationist traditions arguably claim that capitalist technologies – in and of themselves – offer the way forward for a postcapitalist alternative; it is just that they have been crippled by institutional regimes of private property and are thereby in the wrong hands. There’s a different tradition that distrusts the idea that we can actually hack these means of planning and harness them for progressive means because companies like Walmart, Anglo American, and BHP Billiton have developed these technological systems for supply-chain mapping, basically around the exploitation of labor and the destruction of nature. Also, there is strong skepticism about the assumption that the ideology of perpetual growth can be embedded within any form of progressive, anti-capitalist planning.
The discussion of the emancipatory potential of planning taken up in the recent special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly titled “The Return of Economic Planning”, really places this question into focus (see Jones 2020). I think it’s one of the most exciting interventions regarding planning on the horizon for the radical democratic Left in the 21st century. One of its articles, authored by Brett Neilson (who’s explored questions of resource extraction as well), says that there’s something emancipatory about acquiring engineering knowledge of how these technological infrastructures work – knowledge through which to then hack them (Neilson 2020). He argues that we should apply what he terms “engineering in reverse” to broader forms of technological systems at the territorial scale. What happens if we use some techniques of supply-chain mapping to create regional commodity chains underpinned by logics of solidarity or reciprocity and by the responsible use of resources? There is also the need of furthering the idea of post-extractivist planning. What would a post-extractivist planning project or a post-extractivist planning internationalism look like? Communities articulated around the Green New Deal have already pointed in that direction. How can we unthink industrial policy, land surveying, land registries, statistical methods, algorithmic regulation, and other tools of economic planning? How can we re-envision the 20th century idea of industrial policy in terms of engineering a whole national economy in a way that is disentangled from the ideal of endless economic growth as an end in itself?
- As the book ends, the question of how to move beyond extraction becomes prominent, and with it, the whole project of envisioning a post-capitalist social formation comes to the fore. For Moishe Postone – a pivotal figure in the theoretical architecture of Planetary Mine, as we discussed earlier – the key to reach such a stage is contingent upon the liberation of the potentialities generated (yet systematically and recursively suppressed) under capitalism by “abolishing” value altogether. In so doing – Postone postulates – social relations, technological production, and scientific knowledge can be set free from the constraints of their historical development within the context of capital’s alienated social forms. In this last question, we would like to return to the central issue of value, especially in light of philosopher Martin Hägglund’s (2019: Ch. 5) recent critique of Postone. Hägglund’s contention is this: in calling for the abolition of value, Postone conflates the historically specific measure of value under capitalism (i.e. socially necessary labor time) with “value” as such – thus it makes no sense, he claims, to abolish the category of value per se, since such a category is in and of itself “a condition of intelligibility” for any form of economic life. Therefore, overcoming capitalism requires, Hägglund argues, not the abolition but rather the revaluation of value. How does this critique fit within the framework articulated in Planetary Mine, especially in relation to both the larger scale of collective struggles around the construction of a new socio-spatial imaginary beyond extraction, as well as the intimate scale in which “revolutionary subjectivity”, as you put it, is constituted?
It’s great to end with this more speculative, radically open question. The idea of capital as a subject of history – according to Postone – would in principle deny the history-making practice of humans. If we live in a world that is “made behind our backs”, can there be any potential for emancipation or revolutionary practice? What Postone says is that the global unfolding of value creates systemic, all-around interdependence and all-around co-operation between human beings, technologies, and non-human forms of life and objects in a way that opens emancipatory possibilities that are beyond anything that might have existed in the past. In that sense, the constitution and social determination of capital as subject is also the sort of entry point for the radical transformation of social existence in different alternative directions – directions that we cannot even imagine or envision at this point. I think this is very clearly manifested in current struggles against resource extraction industries. You can see, for example with the North Dakota pipeline, how – propagating through technologies of information, transport, and digital media – a very local Indigenous struggle became elevated to a nationwide political protest. And in the same way, there are many instances in Latin America in which individuals who have no economic power, are uneducated, some of them can barely read and write, nonetheless manage to lead these major legal battles before transnational courts. One important example is the case of Luis Yanza against oil extraction in Ecuador: he led a struggle against Chevron Texaco, won a lawsuit of millions of dollars, and then the company had to leave the country. I mean, how is this possible? On the one hand, there is the braveness and ingenuity of Indigenous communities. But also, on the other, behind each individual or each particular social movement, are these internationalist networks of solidarity that would be unthinkable without the modes of generalized social intercourse enabled by the global unfolding of value.
Now, in terms of the debate on value, there is a new trend in value theory that seeks to connect or pose the question between variegated forms or repertoires of valuation. I think the STS tradition has made important contributions to this discussion on the grammars of value by looking at valuation in the plural. Ideals of the Green New Deal or the eco-socialist tradition – which are rooted in this kind of radical understanding of values as embedded in social-ecological commons – are very inspiring as well. They speak of the kind of enjoyment you get from living in a healthy ecosystem or from spending time with friends of loved ones. What if we make this the organizing principle of future economies and societies? Here there is room to develop notions of both use value and exchange value. As Ecuadorian philosopher Bolívar Echeverría has pointed out, the Marxian critique has been overwhelmingly centered on the unpacking and explanation of exchange value, and for this reason a materialist theory of use value is yet to be developed (see Andueza 2020; Echeverría 2014; Sáenz De Sicilia and Brito Rojas 2014). There is, in this sense, an unfinished project in the Marxian critique concerned with articulating a theory of use value – a theory, that is, of the vernacular.
A progressive politics should not aim at the supersession of value as such. The point is rather to tear open what we have come to understand by value itself – in other words, to abolish its historically specific form. There are many ideas that point in this direction. Take, for example the work of authors such as Martha Nussbaum (2013) or Manfred Max-Neef (1994), who have been investigating metrics and theories of development beyond GDP. These authors argue that we should look instead at the development of societies in terms of the human potentialities (such as the capacity to interact with other species, to have imagination, and to enjoy an aesthetic object) that can be unleashed to have a meaningful, substantial impact on populations. There is also the idea of the universal ayllu, discussed by Álvaro García Linera (2009), which points towards the notion of the “primitive community” – not the primitive community as in romanticizing the past; rather, more in line with the concept of the “gift economy” as articulated by Marcel Mauss (1990), which explains how value in primitive communities is underpinned by the principle of solidarity and reciprocity. I think it’s essential to reflect on the potential of the universal ayllu as the universalization of systems of reciprocity and solidarity. And to imagine, more broadly, how these radically other visions and values from the non-capitalist outside can play a fundamental role in the formulation of any emancipatory project.
 The Urban Theory Lab, directed by Neil Brenner, was based at the Harvard Graduate School of Design between 2011 and 2019, and has been recently relocated to the University of Chicago: http://www.urbantheorylab.net/
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