Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 13, 2019

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

An excerpt from the introduction:

In this book, we show how the modern world has been made through seven cheap things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. Every word in that sentence is difficult. Cheap is the opposite of a bargain—cheapening is a set of strategies to control a wider web of life. “Things” become things through armies and clerics and accountants and print. Most centrally, humans and nature don’t exist as giant seventeenth-century billiard balls crashing into each other. The pulse of life making is messy, contentious, and mutually sustaining. This book intro-duces a way to think about the complex relationships between humans and the web of life that helps make sense of the world we’re in and suggests what it might become.

As a teaser, let’s return to those chicken bones in the geological record, a capitalist trace of the relation between humans and the world’s most common bird, Gallus gallus domesticus. The chickens we eat today are very different from those consumed a century ago. Today’s birds are the result of intensive post—World War II efforts drawing on genetic material sourced freely from Asian jungles, which humans decided to recombine to produce the most profitable fowl. That bird can barely walk, reaches maturity in weeks, has an oversize breast, and is reared and slaughtered in geologically significant quantities (more than sixty billion birds a year). Think of this relationship as a sign of Cheap Nature. Already the most popular meat in the United States, chicken is projected to be the planet’s most popular flesh for human consumption by 2020. That will require a great deal of labor. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the United States, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken goes to workers, and some chicken operators use prison labor, paid twenty-five cents per hour. Think of this as Cheap Work. In the US poultry industry, 86 percent of workers who cut wings are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the line. Some employers mock their workers for reporting injury, and the denial of injury claims is common. The result for workers is a 15 percent decline in income for the ten years after injury. While recovering, workers will depend on their families and support networks, a factor outside the circuits of production but central to their continued participation in the workforce. Think of this as Cheap Care. The food produced by this industry ends up keeping bellies full and discontent down through low prices at the checkout and drive-through. That’s a strategy of Cheap Food. Chickens themselves are relatively minor contributors to climate change—they’ve only one stomach each and don’t burp out methane like cows do—but they’re bred in large lots that use a great deal of fuel to keep warm. This is the biggest contributor to the US poultry industry’s carbon footprint!’ You can’t have low-cost chicken without abundant propane: Cheap Energy. There is some risk in the commercial sale of these processed birds, but through franchising and subsidies, everything from easy financial and physical access to the land on which the soy feed for chickens is grown—mainly in China, Brazil, and the United States—to small business loans, that risk is mitigated through public expense for private profit. This is one aspect of Cheap Money. Finally, persistent and frequent acts of chauvinism against categories of animal and human life—such as women, the colonized, the poor, people of color, and immigrants—have made each of these six cheap things possible. Fixing this ecology in place requires a final element—the rule of Cheap Lives. Yet at every step of this process, humans resist—from the Indigenous Peoples whose flocks provide the source of genetic material for breeding through poultry and care workers demanding recognition and relief to those fighting against climate change and Wall Street. The social struggles over nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives that attend the Capitalocene’s poultry bones amount to a case for why the most iconic symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.

All this is forgotten in the act of dipping the chicken-and-soy product into a plastic pot of barbeque sauce. Yet the fossilized trace of a trillion birds will outlast—and mark the passage of—the humans who made them. That’s why we present the story of humans, nature, and the system that changed the planet as a short history of the modern world: as an antidote to forgetting. This short book isn’t, however, a history of the whole world. It’s the .history of processes that can explain why the world looks the way it does today. The story of these seven cheap things illustrates how capitalism expanded to yield maps like the one below, showing how small a portion of the earth has lain outside the scope of European colonial power. We’ll explain precisely what we mean by cheap below. First we need to make the case that it’s not just some natural human behavior but rather a specific interaction between humans and the biological and physical world that has brought us to this point.

1 Comment »

  1. This sounds like my kind of book. I might buy it. It seems to wraps everything up very tightly in a box nicely decoated with a bow.

    Comment by Andy Lucia Camera — May 17, 2019 @ 10:45 pm


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