Growing through Sabotage

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Growing through Sabotage

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Jul 14, 2017 7:27 pm

Growing through Sabotage: Energizing Hierarchical Power
Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan [1]

Working Papers on Capital as Power, July 2017 (No. 2017/02)


According to the theory of capital as power, capitalism, like any other mode of power, is born through sabotage and lives in chains – and yet everywhere we look we see it grow and expand. What explains this apparent puzzle of 'growth in the midst of sabotage'? The answer, we argue, begins with the very meaning of ‘growth’. Whereas conventional political economy equates the growth with a rising standard of living, we posit that much of this growth has nothing to do with livelihood as such: it represents not the improvement of wellbeing, but the expansion of sabotage itself. Building on this premise, the article historicizes, theorizes and models the relationship between changes in hierarchical power and sabotage on the one hand and the growth of energy capture on the other. It claims that hierarchical power is sought for its own sake; that building and sustaining this power demands strategic sabotage; and that sabotage absorbs a significant proportion of the energy captured by society. From this standpoint, capitalism grows, at least in part, not despite or because of sabotage, but through sabotage.

1. Introduction

The theory of capital as power, or CasP, argues that capitalism, like other historic societies, is best examined not as a mode of production and consumption, but as a mode of power. [2] To think of society as a mode of power is to focus, first and foremost, on the institutions and processes that articulate and determine social power. Production and consumption are of course important to this articulation and determination – but not exclusively and often inversely.

The key CasP question is what creorders – or creates the order of – a mode of power. Power and resistance to power, we have argued in our work, are dialectically intertwined: without power there could be no opposition to power, and without opposition to power, whether blatant or latent, there would be nothing to exert power over in the first place. The two forces imply, negate and generate each other in an infinite regress. Now, when we speak of society as a mode of power, we describe a social order in which power is able to suppress and prevail over resistance to power, and this ability, we maintain, implies and requires what Thorstein Veblen called strategic sabotage. In order for power to successfully harness, contain and, if necessary, crush resistance, the powerful must constantly restrict, limit and inhibit the autonomy of those with less or no power. Moreover, they must do so strategically: applying too little sabotage might be insufficient to sustain their power, while inflicting too much can trigger revolt or, worse still, decimate the very fabric of society they seek to control. [3]

Now, although the nature and impact of strategic sabotage varies significantly from one mode of power to another, there are also broad similarities. In all pre-capitalist modes of power, strategic sabotage tended to be associated with a fairly rigid societal structure, a relatively stable culture and little or no growth in production and consumption. Compared with this record, the capitalist mode of power marks an epochal novelty: it represents not only the first historic society that is both dynamic and growing, but also the first whose dynamism and growth seem inherent to its very logic.

1.1 Energy Capture

The historical record on this matter is unambiguous: over the past three centuries, the structure of capitalism has been constantly transformed, its population count gone vertical and its per capita energy soared to unprecedented levels. The uniqueness of capitalism in this regard is illustrated in Figure 1 and Table 1.

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tab_01.jpg (258.51 KiB) Viewed 113 times

The figure plots the evolution of the world’s overall energy capture and its components from 10000 BCE to the present. The term ‘energy capture’ here denotes the entire range of energy types converted by human society. The energy sources inputted into – or ‘captured’ by – this conversion include biomass, various fuels and different raw materials, while the outputs comprise human and animal feed, heating and cooling, material and immaterial objects, physical and virtual transportation – and, last but not least, the energy lost to the conversion process itself (Cook 1971; Morris 2013: 53).

Analytically, we can conceive of overall energy capture as the product of two components: the breadth of energy capture, measured by the size of the population, and the depth of energy capture, measured by energy capture per person. [4]

eq_01.jpg (45.75 KiB) Viewed 113 times

The figure shows the evolution of these three energy-capture series – depth, breadth and overall – between 10000 BCE and 2000 CE. The series are rebased with 10000 BCE = 1.0 for easier visualization. They are also plotted against a logarithmic scale, so their relative slopes are proportionate to their respective growth rates. Now, although the underlying data are only rough approximations, the overall picture they portray is clear enough.

Most generally, they show three distinct periods: (1) prehistory (till 5000 BCE), (2) history before capitalism (5000 BCE–1700 CE), and (3) capitalism (1700–2000 CE). [5] During the prehistoric period, the breadth and depth of energy capture – and therefore its overall volume – changed by very little, if at all (remember through that the data here are very sketchy). The initial acceleration came roughly around 5000 BCE, with the emergence of the early historical modes of power. For the first time in the history of their species, human beings found themselves buckled by hierarchical state structures, and as these structures spread, the depth and breadth of energy capture – and hence its overall volume – started to increase.

But the increase was almost imperceptible. Between 5000 BCE and 1700 CE, the depth of energy capture expanded at an annual average rate of only 0.03 per cent. At that rate, it took depth more than two millennia to double in size (see Table 1). The average annual growth rate of breadth, at 0.08 per cent, was nearly three times faster, while the growth of overall energy was pitched even higher, at 0.11 per cent. But even at those faster rates, doubling time was still half a millennium or more.

All of this changed, and rather dramatically, with the rise of capitalism. During the 1700-2000 period, the depth of energy capture grew at an average annual rate of 0.55 per cent – more than 18 times faster than during the previous 6,700 years. The social impact of this change was enormous. In the period between 5000 BCE and 1700 CE, it took the depth of energy capture 2,311 years to double; in capitalism, this doubling period was cut down to 126 years (Table 1). A 75-year-old person living during the historical period prior to capitalism would have witnessed energy capture per capita expand by a mere 2.3 per cent over her entire lifetime; in capitalism, a similar person would see this capture rise by as much as 51 per cent! The capitalist acceleration of breadth and overall energy capture were equally dramatic: the former grew at an average rate of 0.78 per cent annually (nearly 10 times faster than during the historical period before capitalism), while the later rose by an average of 1.33 per cent per year (12 times faster).

1.2 The CasP Puzzle

All in all, then, it is clear that, in terms of energy capture, historical modes of power were fairly stationary up until the rise of capitalism and explosive thereafter. And here arises a CasP puzzle. Rousseau famously observed that ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’, and the same observation can be made about capitalism – only in reverse. According to CasP, capitalism, like any other mode of power, is born through sabotage and lives in chains – and yet everywhere we look we see it grow and expand.

How can we explain this apparent contradiction? If capitalism is indeed crisscrossed with various forms of strategic sabotage, why is it that, unlike other modes of power, it remains dynamic and growing? Maybe the notion of ‘capitalist sabotage’ is a misnomer to begin with? Indeed, according to many writers, the very growth of capitalist societies attests to their democracy and autonomy – just as the very stagnation of traditional societies demonstrates their authoritarianism and subjugation (Huntington 1968). And if that is indeed the case, should we not conclude that capitalist sabotage – assuming there is any – is simply too limited to arrest the system’s inherent growth drive? Or maybe we are misinterpreting the very nature of capitalist growth and change? Is capitalism indeed unable to exert power – or can it be that, in capitalism, growth itself is a lever of power?

Our purpose in this paper is to examine this apparent puzzle of ‘growth in the midst of sabotage’, and our tentative conclusion is that there is in fact no puzzle at all. The conventional view, both mainstream and heterodox, is that capitalism is a system driven by the growth of production and consumption, and that, short-term crises and the ups and downs of redistribution aside, this growth is ultimately about wellbeing. The very vocabulary of economics determines this conclusion: since the economy is said to produce and consume ‘goods’ and ‘services’, its growth is equivalent to a rising ‘standard of living’, by definition.

But as we shall show, this habit of thinking might be deeply misleading. And why? Because a significant proportion of these so-called goods and services have nothing to do with livelihood: their growth represents not the improvement of wellbeing, but the expansion of sabotage itself. And if that is in fact the case, it follows that capitalism grows, at least in part, not despite or because of sabotage, but through sabotage.

The paper comprises twelve sections. The two sections following this introduction set the stage. Section 2 outlines the CasP claim that capitalized power is augmented by undermining efficiency and growth, while Section 3 presents the opposite notion – namely, that hierarchical power is in fact the best way of boosting them. The remainder of the article tries to sort out this apparent contradiction. Section 4 begins by examining the connection between power and hierarchy more closely, Section 5 continues by contrasting hierarchy and power on the one hand with cooperation and symbiosis on the other and Section 6 assesses how their interaction might have affected the evolution of society. Section 7 considers the respective capacities of hierarchical power and autonomous cooperation to ‘capture energy’ and the difficulty of measuring these capacities in practice, while Section 8 explores why hierarchy requires energy at all. Using and extending these analyses, Sections 9 to 11 outline an alternative hierarchy-energy model, delineating and exploring the four hierarchy-energy trajectories a mode of power can follow: expansion, crisis and decline on the one hand, and democratization on the other. Section 12 offers a summary, reflections and extensions.


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[1] The impetus for writing this paper came from reading Blair Fix’s path-breaking work on hierarchy, energy and growth (2015a, 2015b, 2017). We are indebted to Blair Fix and Daniel Moure for commenting on the first draft of the article – though responsibility for the final cut is of course ours alone. Shimshon Bichler teaches political economy at colleges and universities in Israel. Jonathan Nitzan teaches political economy at York University in Canada. All of their publications are available for free on The Bichler & Nitzan Archives. Research for this paper was partly supported by the SSHRC. The article is licenced under Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International).

[2] The fullest account of CasP is offered in Nitzan and Bichler (2009). Shorter overviews and interviews can be found in Bichler and Nitzan (2012a), Bichler, Nitzan and Di Muzio (2012) and Bichler, Nitzan and Dutkiewicz (2013). Bichler and Nitzan (2015b) survey the past, present and future of CasP research, while Debailleul, Bichler and Nitzan (2016) articulate some implications.

[3] Note that our notion of strategic sabotage here is broader and somewhat different than Veblen’s. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Veblen’s main focus was the pecuniary institutions of ‘business’ and the ways in which these institutions undermined the universal efficiency of ‘industry’ for redistributional ends. In this sense, his conception of sabotage was largely confined to the ‘economic’ sphere of production and consumption, investment and waste, credit and finance. The CasP approach, although partly influenced by Veblen, transcends the politics-economics duality from the beginning and is therefore able to conceive of sabotage not as an economic tool, but as a lever of power more generally.

This broader viewpoint reveals significant historical changes in the nature and application of strategic sabotage. In the ancient states (as well as in prehistoric societies), power was usually exerted openly, directly and violently, and often in ways that seemed arbitrary and random. In later, more complex polities, however – and particularly in modern capitalism – this exertion became much more opaque and roundabout, far less violent and significantly more systematic. In this latter constellation, sabotage is less open and more stealthy: instead of acting positively to affirm and assert the will of the powerful, it operates mostly negatively, by preventing, restricting and undermining the actions of those polities’ subjects. It also grows less violent: instead of using brute force, it often resorts to temptation, manipulation, mental pressure and inbuilt guilt. Finally and crucially, it becomes more methodical: instead of yielding to whim and caprice, it progresses deliberately and calculatedly.

[4] Our notions of energy breadth and depth draw on and in some sense overlap with our analysis of capitalized power. In this analysis, breadth, measured by the organization’s head count, represents the organization’s size, while depth, measured by earnings or capitalization per capita, denote its power per ‘unit of organization’ (Nitzan 1992; Nitzan and Bichler 2009).

[5] Our choice of 1700 as the ‘beginning’ of capitalism is practical rather than theoretical: regardless of its precise birthday, until 1700 capitalism was simply too limited in scope to have a significant impact on the world’s average rate of growth.


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Jonathan Nitzan
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