The Extractive Circuit

An exhausted planet at the end of growth


The machinery—the actual form and function—of twenty-first-century capitalism is an extractive circuit which quite literally crisscrosses the world. Its global value chains stretch through physical infrastructure and “frictionless” financial flows at the speed allowed by fossil fuels; telecommunications;  and geophysical, technological, psychosocial, and bodily limits and “optimizations.” It connects economically and ecologically dispossessed agricultural communities in the Global South with regimes of hyperwork in the Global North; rare earth “sacrifice zones” with refugees; migrant labor with social reproduction; ocean acidification and atmospheric carbon with profitable opportunity. It has required the transformation of states; it has ripped through biomes and through flesh. Capital often appears and is treated as a historical abstraction; this is doubly true of globalized, financialized capital. The extractive circuit is the leaden reality of a global human ecological niche organized for maximal profitability—no matter how difficult or costly to maintain. Its realities underscore the generalization of a colonial social relation in socioecological terms, even as older modes of imperialism and neocolonialism are hardly swept aside. Its speed, frenzy, coercion, and brutality reach into the very heart of the imperial metropole, far beyond where such relations were already present. Feelings of exhaustion—depression, desperation, fatigue, exasperation—course through its wirings, neurons, biochemicals, and sinews.

At every “node” along such a circuit, “inputs”—ecological, political, social, individual—are extracted and “exhausted.” The circuit, like capital, crosses boundaries without entirely obliterating them, and, similarly, connects a vast potential political subject across disparate lines—Global North and South, gender, class, race, nationality, religion, and sexuality. The extractive circuit is the socioecological portrait of capitalism historically and its transformations to maintain profitability in the face of immanent headwinds, like the long economic downturn and ecological limits themselves.

Just as Marx once invited us to look behind the factory door—above which was inscribed “No admittance except on business”—to understand the way in which a nascent industrial capitalism was creating value, we need to “unbox” the extractive circuit, catalog its parts, and pry past a few bezels if we want to see Actually Existing Capitalism today.


The Rest is Nodes

Consider the Philippines. Over the past several decades, the Filipino economy has become increasingly dependent on the export of low-cost labor, largely along gendered lines, in the form of care-workers to North America and Europe (mostly women), and extremely low-cost manual laborers to the Gulf states (mostly men). Remittances now make up ten percent (or more) of the annual GDP of the Philippines.

In the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia being the case par excellence, migrant workforces are employed in sometimes slave-like conditions to do much of the country’s basic labor, both “unskilled” and “skilled.” (As much as 83 percent of the Saudi Arabia workforce is migrant according to the IMF.) Yet, for all its repressiveness through arms of direct coercion like its notorious morality police, Saudi Arabia is a remarkably weak state. This imported workforce is vital for the social and political maintenance of that weak state, which in turn serves a key function in the globalized order not only as an oil producer but, crucially, as a control on the world’s oil spigot. Far from the Malthusian fears of “peak oil,” oil is in fact plentiful in the world, in the Gulf region and elsewhere, and Saudi Arabia is a key player in limiting its production to control prices. As paths for economic advancement narrow in places like the Philippines and as industries such as fishing are decimated by changing ocean temperature, acidification, coral bleaching, and other cumulative effects of global climate change, conditions intensify this political economic shift to migration. In turn such shifts drive profitable increases in energy demand, low-cost labor, through dispossession and even social and ecological crises themselves. As Melissa Walker observed of the “disposable Third World woman,” Filipino and Southeast Asian labor more broadly is viewed—in terms of dislocation and distance but also cultural imagination—as docile and pliant. In the Gulf, male Asian workers are considered additionally useful as “less politically menacing” than local and regional alternatives. Ecological resources become sources of social value and “human capital” is naturalized as closely as possible to the supposed infinite free “gifts of nature.”

The extractive circuit is the leaden reality of a global human ecological niche organized for maximal profitability—no matter how difficult or costly to maintain.

Now imagine a Global North worker, across the globe, likely “middle class.” Probably white but not necessarily so. Place her in California—an increasingly unsuitable geography for mass human habitation. Say she’s white collar—perhaps an office assistant, accountant, or coder. In the 1970s her labor would likely have been lower in waged-hours than it is today, and it would have included, in the famous phrase of Arlie Hochschild, a “second shift” of unwaged “free” domestic labor. Cooking, cleaning, care work: the often “invisible” aspects of social reproduction found in the home. Today, our imaginary Californian works longer hours, in a “productively optimized” labor process, still for a lower wage than a male counterpart, even as part of her “second shift” is now itself displaced onto migrant labor, including everything from general health care work to at-home care and domestic work to independent contract labor for household maintenance, which can range from food preparation and delivery to, in concentrated urban centers, laundry and far beyond. The extractive circuit produces prodigious amounts of such “disposable” people.

This move toward “outsourcing” domestic labor was already occurring in much earlier periods (the 1960s, 1950s, and earlier), but in the United States that was, at the time, shifted instead to differently racialized gendered labor; a largely black, racialized caste system underwrote white middle class “normalcy” in the United States. Such a caste system unquestionably continues to this day, even if its racialization has taken on “multicultural” hues. But the augmentation that is key to understanding the extractive circuit is the ever-increasing number of inputs designed—to use somewhat crude economic language—to maximize productivity and profitability. This augmentation has spread comparative advantage from geographies to the body itself. This is the case even if it leads to, at best, an increasingly socioeconically and ecologically tenuous maintenance of current overall economic productivity. Put more simply, our imaginary white-collar Californian now works harder and longer helping to maintain an artificially futile level of production and requiring mass consumption of everything from energy to electronics. And she does so for less. Her real wage has stagnated for several decades; even though the professions imagined above could place her income above the 48 percent of Americans who earn less than about $31,000 a year, they don’t come close to the levels where twenty-first-century capitalism truly pays off (not even taking into account the grimmer picture in wealth.)[1] Her lifestyle is thus supported by financialized debt, which in turn requires her to ever further “innovate” and “diversify” her “human capital.” This includes but is not limited to the intensive self-maintenance through biochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other technological interventions to her body and  its internal composition and processes. She does consume more, but this is not a particularly pleasurable form of desire fulfillment. It is rather her very desire to continue to exist that is rechanneled into the logic of capital accumulation.

Even as a rather small node on the extractive circuit, she is also a component along several different if recognizable lines, for example through the “global value chains” (GVCs) producing her computer or cellphone, from cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Shenzhen manufacturing. The unprecedented speed, precision of production, and division of labor, as well as the ungovernability of these value chains, propels her own speed-up. The food system her (un)well-being rests upon is one form or another of industrialized petro-farming, itself dependent on the labor (and the hyper-depressed wages) of a deeply precarious migrant labor workforce composed largely of undocumented migrants and special H-2A agricultural “guest workers.” Its supposed “green” revolutionary efficiency is a figment of resource-intensive industrial agriculture, which leaves the world both malnourished and obese while increasing energy costs, greenhouse gas emissions [GHG], not to mention the growing enclosure and dispossession of people practicing far more sustainable modes of agriculture that could feed the world far better today.

Most carbon dioxide is emitted at the point of production. Take her smartphone. The electricity that powers it accounts for only about 14 percent of the total carbon emissions that span its lifetime as a commodity. Eighty-three percent of the emissions occur at the point of production. The majority of such phones are produced in China, whether their end-use destination is the United States, Germany, Japan, or any other country on Earth. And, if we start looking at the other ways phone production exceeds planetary boundaries, in purely ecological terms, we find all measurable boundaries breached.[2] It’s not just a matter of carbon dioxide and other production emissions but also the processes of resource extraction (mining) itself: excessive freshwater use, eutrophication from biogeochemical flows, deforestation of nearby lands, biodiversity loss from land-use and others. At the same time such extraction is dependent, for just one component, on cobalt found primarily in mines in the DRC. The labor in such mines is, almost without exception, either slave labor, child labor, or both. Capitalism as we know it is dependent on the political subordination of places like the DRC, the designation of its people as expendable, “disposable.” Slave labor keeps the cost of cobalt as cheap as possible. Cobalt is a critical resource in high demand. The cobalt from such mines will likely be turned into phone batteries in manufacturing centers in, again, places like Shenzhen, China.

Globally speaking—although improving in some ways within China itself—such “cheap” labor is required to maintain the profitability of that phone. Meanwhile, as we’ve already seen, the end-use of that phone dramatically increases the conditions of “hyperwork”—the speed-up, the exhaustion—in the Global North (and pockets of North in South and vice versa). This manifests in all manner of new, “more efficient,” and “more productive” labor practices across a host of traditionally blue- and white-collar sectors. The very design of those phones—forced obsolescence within approximately two or three years—requires not only an increase in extraction across all these nodes but is itself a source of profitability. At this juncture, capital must keep burning through more of the biosphere and the human systems inside it to keep up profit margins.


Fracked and Extracted

In other words, the logic of the extractive circuit is one of the most vicious cycles imaginable. At every turn, an increase in energy inputs from both ecological and social sources, and with every increase in energy inputs, an increase in overall inclemency for a global human ecological niche that stretches from rising ocean temperatures and acidification to overall warming, each of which drives a further demand for energy inputs, and so on. The increased consumption demands in the service of accumulation require further fossil fuel extraction, further migration into low-wage, high-risk, precarious- or informal-labor, and even the geo-strategic necessity of different kinds of postcolonial states.

At every node in the circuit, there are two simultaneous and related phenomena: value extraction and nodal exhaustion. Value is extracted not only through human labor but also through a series of natural and social inputs. Ecologically speaking, value at the simplest level can be drawn from the “free” use of water or air and other “commons.” But it’s also the value derived from their commodification, from so-called “externalities” in waste flows and mountains; in complex socioecological processes like industrial agriculture where not only are soils exhausted but output is dependent on massive fossil fuel, unsustainable pesticide and chemical-fertilizer inputs, or with the “free” exploitation of flora and fauna, from simple use as with logging to the patenting of DNA strands. Almost every measure associated with anthropogenic climate change—not least fossil fuels—represents a process by which value is added through extraction and exhaustion.

Unevenly and to vastly different degrees, more and more are in the colony now.

Similarly, the extractive circuit derives value from a panoply of social sources from the global majorities “relatively surplus to the functioning of capitalism” to the gendered and often unwaged work of social reproduction. In perhaps the most unintentionally radical paper ever written, the late economist Chong Soo Pyun pegged the “monetary value of a housewife” in 1969 through a set of neoclassical and neoliberal methods at $83,807.58 (or $626,410.28 in inflation adjusted 2021 dollars). Just under thirty years later, the ecological economist Robert Costanza and an interdisciplinary team would argue, “only somewhat facetiously” in political scientist Alyssa Battistoni’s words, the value of the world’s “ecosystems and natural capital” is on average 33 trillion (or 56 in inflation adjusted) dollars per year. As Battistoni notes, feminist arguments regarding social reproduction should serve as bridge concepts connecting the “historical and structural” similarities between labor exploitation and ecological value. At the same time in those majorities (across both South and North to differing degrees), refugees, for example, can be mined for data, exploited for informal economies, or leveraged for geopolitical advantage. Racializing and/or Orientalizing populations helps render entire peoples and geographies suitable for valuable subordination, disposability, or wholesale abandonment. Dispossession and expropriation are socioecological processes. Value can be derived from the limitations of popular sovereign powers over capital. Or from the usefulness of social, political, and ecological crises themselves. In a very different (but still market-based) world-system, the DRC should be able to command extraordinarily high prices for its cobalt, especially if mined in more sustainable socioecological ways. However, value is derived from the DRC’s ongoing sporadic armed conflicts and general instability—themselves shaped in part by the extractive circuit—in providing ideal conditions to maintain child and slave labor, environmentally catastrophic extraction, and capture the extraordinary revenues for transnational corporations like Swiss-based Glencore.

The key connective tissue in this circuit is fossil capital, to use Andreas Malm’s clarifying construction, but carbon is not, by itself, the only input. In the wake of different modes of exhaustion—at the level of formal labor but also at the level of those thrown out of the labor market, at the level of communities, at the level of societies, of states, and of the ecologies we can live and flourish in—one thing is pursued: profit. Neoliberalism’s matryoshka doll of financialization, international economic governance, risk shifting, state policies, and adjustments in cultural logic helped nurse profitability out of its 1970s doldrums. It did so through the redistribution of labor income to capital; through creating historically unprecedented speed and mobility for transnational capital flows, business-to-business commerce, and  firm-level debt/currency creation; and through transforming the social functions of states into profit generating enterprises, diminishing democratic sovereignty, inhibiting decolonization, and quite a lot more.

Although carbon emissions have been increasing rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, it is no accident that 63 percent of all emissions have been produced in these past forty years. Pace the Davos set, these emissions track neither population growth nor consumption from developing states. Their path is unimpeded by the proliferation of eco-conscious marketing schemes, “corporate social responsibility,” and promises (and non-existent realities) of mystical techno-fixes. They track the return to and difficult maintenance of profitability.

As an interdisciplinary team led by chemist Will Steffen demonstrated, in terms of GHG emissions, ocean acidification, rainforest destruction, aquaculture depletion, global warming itself, and so on, climate change tracks not only cumulative GDP growth (as is widely discussed) but such conspicuous features of contemporary global capital as the increased use of telecoms, non-recreational transportation, and foreign direct investment (FDI), which moves from almost zero in the 1960s to trillions by the 2010s. Following Polanyi, they dubbed this “the Great Acceleration.” Such acceleration does not aggregate with population growth; perversely, the relation is inverted. Emissions, resource intensivity, and other climate measures are concentrated where end-point consumption is greatest, as many climate scientists now openly state, among the world’s wealthiest. In the global top wealth and income deciles, population growth is lowest or even negative. And as the rate of population growth is curbing globally, climate change continues its exponential pace. Many climate scientists today go further still, like physicist and social ecologist Julia Steinberger, in arguing the need to push past symptomatic criticisms of biophysical and economic growth towards the clear critique of capital as the “fundamental driver” of climate change.

Far from reaching a new equilibrium, such a system has little room for maneuver, although it’s not at threat of automatic, mechanical collapse—a perennial, millenarian fantasy of so many across a broad political spectrum. Even with anemic growth rates, every little bit of real capital accumulation requires yet more inputs, more extreme extraction, increased dispossession, and new “sacrifice zones”—completely given over to permanent exhaustion and debilitation. The Covid-19 pandemic, itself a socioecological effect of accelerating capitalist enclosure and zoonotic spillover, proves just how well shocks can be absorbed into the system of macrofinancial capital flows and global value chains of the extractive circuit. Nearly one third of the total wealth that’s accrued to the United States’ 719 billionaires since the 1990s was accumulated during 2020, even as wealth stagnated or declined for vast majorities. Similar patterns can be seen globally. This is the system working; profitability recovers and the brief dip in emissions is reversed, higher in December of 2020 by two percent over the previous year. The shock intensified already existing systemic tendencies while revealing the slim margin of error needed for such a perfectly optimized “real economy.” Some recent shortages demonstrate just how taut the logistics of the extractive circuit are. Other shortages, like those of high-grade silicon (i.e., sand as observed by political theorist Laleh Khalili and internal industry reports alike) for microchips, are examples of genuine resource exhaustion.

As scholar of global economic governance Julie Klinger has noted, it is hardly the geographic location of rare earth metals alone, for example, that dictates the location of zones for their extraction. These zones are produced rather through a logic that delicately weaves the power and needs of transnational firms, states, and other strategic actors. Some states may want extractive frontiers within their boundaries for a measure of geostrategic leverage. Some local actors (a diverse array of some workers, surrounding communities, and social movements) are pitted against others. Extractivism is one of the only paths available to material development at many nodes along the circuit, towards some hope of relief. But it also promises destruction and exhaustion in its wake. While many fully aware of this reality in the Global South are rendered dependent on resource exports,in Pennsylvania, families similarly enroll in the latest fracking initiative or otherwise sign away mineral rights as one of the last remunerative games in town. Capital profits off the mine drainage, the freshwater depletion, the emissions, the social strain and desperation alike.


Feeding Frenzy

Financialized supply chains are structured to allow firms to ignore or skirt local, national, international legal.or even physical attempts to restrict the flow of extraction. They facilitate the shift of risk to the actor—whether at-will contractor, off-the-books migrant employee, or indigenous community in a resource rich area—structurally least able to absorb it. This extends not only into society, but into individuals, their internal biochemical orders, and to the whole ecological niche.

Each of these factors contributes to a logic of absolute profit maximization and, as already described, a necessarily ever-increasing speed-up—in extraction, production, labor, dispossession, enclosure, and overall niche exhaustion. This is the world of lean production, just-in-time manufacturing and delivery. While most would, with good reason, focus on the human and ecological costs created by these processes—one key factor here is rather what they make possible.[3]  The one-day or one-hour delivery, the expedited shipping, the synthesis of business and “leisure” hours: all of this is a lifesaver to the single parent, the double-shift employee in a food-desert, the downwardly mobile twelve-hours-a-day professional, the hustling informal or aspirational employee, hoping to claw their way out of generalized precarity. All of these, in the understanding of contemporary law and neoclassical economics, are “services” provided for consumers.

We should see these “services” instead as facilitating the frenzy of these lives, as shifting literal time and energy not to these individual consumers but rather to the needs of an “always-on” capitalism, creating the very crises to which these services respond. They don’t strictly fulfill consumption ends; they are part of production. Every moment of life is integrated, profitable, from literal labor hours to the production of micro-units of digital value (via social media and other avenues) in the hours-for-what-we-will.

Such services are dependent on the speed and ungovernability of GVCs which can, to a degree not possible before, dice up a production process into its most minute parts, spread them as far a global distance as comparative advantage dictates, limited, in strictly economic terms,  by the current state of communications technology and the price of oil. GVCs function best—that is to say fastest and most profitably—when the network of small and medium size enterprises as well as more informal “arms-length” arrangements are “governed” by a concentrated transnational corporation (TNC). Think again of cobalt mining in the DRC. Such arrangements and “governance” allow a TNC like Swiss-based Glencore to be both the largest cobalt mining corporation in the world and to avoid not only Congolese legal accountability but American and British as well. Glencore dominates cobalt extraction through organizing a network of subcontractors, subsidiaries, and informal arrangements. The opacity and complexity involved allows risks—political, legal, environmental—to be largely circumvented. Glencore exerts a form of localized sovereignty over its mining concerns, taking advantage of questionably sourced minerals and maintaining the very labor and environmental practices that it forswears in meaningless corporate “environmental, social, and governance” rhetoric. Its form effectively moves responsibility from the TNC to “the miners themselves” for their own enslavement and abuses. This “governance” is backed by the direct coercion of subcontracted semi-private “state” mine police and private military corporations like G4S.

Measured by emissions and the toll of climate change, every ounce of anemic growth becomes catastrophically expensive.

The British-based G4S is not only contracted by Glencore or the DRC (technically through a local subsidiary); it operates in ninety countries, including running mega-prisons and migrant camps in the UK, despite numerous accusations of serious human rights abuses in the UK and elsewhere. In the US, G4S has been subcontracted by private firms as well as the military, Customs and Border Patrol, the departments of State, Justice, Energy, Homeland Security and the DEA in addition to subcontracted work for prisons and police at state and local levels. Private clients include GlaxoSmithKline (initially in the United States, Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and UK, expanding to twenty-eight other countries GSK operates in) and Citicorp. G4S was recently acquired by the security conglomerate Allied Universal which boasts the largest security force (one hundred fifty thousand members) in North America. It is the third largest employer in North America and the seventh globally. Similar mechanisms of speed, ungovernability, risk-shifting, and even violence are found at the site of end-use consumption, even in the arguably most powerful state on the planet, as at sites of basic resource extraction in some of the poorest geographies. Whether a logger in Indonesia or a delivery-person in the United States, TNCs rely on similar methods if not to the same degree. At both nodes in the value chain, human and ecological destruction are rampant. It is not physically possible to achieve the just-in-time production and delivery-on-demand described above without burning through fossil fuels and human bodies with merciless efficiency. The proponents of global value chains often cite this ungovernability—if, of course, not these expressions of it—not only as fact but as added value.

And such massive transnational corporations—sometimes “headquartered” in, and yet untethered to, a national economy—also weaken the political power of the end-user, eroding what remains of the “safety net” and social fabric. The form and function of GVCs is fundamentally at odds with basic principles of self-determination and popular sovereignty. The simplest expression of this is the changing relationships in which TNCs shape institutions, including states: “my factories for your reform.” While the United States retains its unique position as the world’s quasi-central bank and imperial guarantor of global capital, this new mode of capital organization facilitates its own versions of “special economic zones.” As of this year, for example, Samsung is extracting concessions in the form of proposed local, state, and federal tax breaks, and low-cost labor incentives, on top of existing environmental and social deregulation, in establishing a new semiconductor plant in Texas. Such “reshoring” is boosted by the catastrophic turn to jingoistic great power conflict with China but it is also not possible without the new socioecological facts-on-the-ground, both generated in the effloresce of the extractive circuit.  Many (but not all)  in the United States are also increasingly untethered from the national economy, and firms too, frequently subject to the same logic of extraction and exhaustion in socioecological terms.


Millenarian Burnout

Feelings of exhaustion, taken together—fatigue, burnout, stress, depression, pain—are globally prevalent. Reported levels of extreme stress are only marginally higher in the Philippines (58 percent) than the United States (55 percent). Cumulatively, these numbers tick up every year. At every node of the extractive circuit, we find speed, coercion, and the inevitable stressors on the individual. One of the best analytic lenses we have for this intersection of affect, environment, psychosocial pathology, and neurology is the psychology and political theory of Frantz Fanon. The extractive circuit is a “divided society . . . characterized by a predominant nervous tension leading quite quickly to exhaustion.” For Fanon, mental “illness situates the patient in a world in which his or her freedom, will and desires are constantly broken by obsessions, inhibitions, countermands, anxieties.” Later anti-psychiatry would posit mental illness itself as freeing, while for Fanon the pathologies were all too real and debilitating. His practice took seriously the need to use psychiatric tools to reconstitute individuals, in dialectical tension with a colonial society that is clearly itself “neurotic,” managing pathologies through psychological intervention but towards a clear understanding that the cure lies in radical change in social structure. Although many psychological theories and studies have long explored not only social environments but particularly the effects of violence and trauma, most unidirectionally focus on the individual as object of study and site of intervention.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher called this the “privatization of stress.” In Britain, by the mid-2000s, depression had become the most treated disease by the National Health Service. “I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies,” wrote Fisher. Neoliberalism had compounded such individual focus into an “incumbent” commandment that “individuals resolve their own psychological distress.” Instead of “accepting the vast privatization of stress” we should ask “how it become acceptable that so many people . . . are ill?” As Fanon argued of neurotic colonized conditions, Fisher posited that “the ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest . . . capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”

The “privatization of stress” is a particularly apt phrase: just as one can mine fossil-capital to boost petro-farming outputs, one can squeeze the standard “labor power” of a hyper-employed worker while also exhausting her “mind.” These are some of the latest frontiers in the long history of transforming ecological inputs (for what is labor but an extension of nature working on itself, as Marx says) into abstract value. The “mental health plague” is the expression of this condition—perhaps, again, in normative economic terms, an externality—but the “privatization of stress,” of stressors, is a method by which an individual’s exhaustion can lower the cost of capitalism’s apparent functioning. If a worker takes it upon herself to “resolve” her own distress, or if a member of the vast global surplus populations accepts the “cruel optimism” that they are the source and aspirational solution to their extreme stress, these are real costs saved systemically as individuals squeeze just a little more out of themselves all while reinforcing the ideologically valuable conviction that the existing system works; all evidence to the contrary is on you.

Although capitalism promises a cheap, sleek, efficient path to plenty and prosperity, it delivers instead a costly, privatized system based on impossible inputs in a finite natural and social world.

At quick glance, the “mental health plague” might seem a classic case of “First World” problems, but reports from the World Health Organization indicate that this kind of depression—and the panoply of affects collected under the rubric of exhaustion—is a global concern. Relatively well-known social phenomena like farmer suicides in South Asia or an individual story like that of the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, widely cited as the beginning of the Arab Spring, are just aspects of the mental health plague most visible in the media. In recent years, suicide has become the second leading cause of death among youth worldwide. As of this year, 77 percent of suicides now occur in low- and middle- income countries. Meanwhile, there are the global psychological impacts of climate change itself: the direct experience of extreme weather events, for example, is compared in many studies with PTSD or grief more commonly associated with modern warfare.

This is not to say that pressure is applied equally everywhere. Nor do the mental and physical health crises experienced by Filipino migrants or Californian office workers share the exact same etiology or epidemiology. It is obvious that the stressors experienced by migrant laborers, the permanently unemployed, or even a relatively stable health care or logistics worker have different particular causes and attendant problems. But they are experiencing what we can call “exhaustion,” not only medically but as a relationship to climate, society, and its hegemonic ideologies. There are relays on the circuit—particularly those between ecology and economy—where this exhaustion is very nearly calculable, in the theories of energetics which once so entranced “scientific management.” But there are others that are found in individuals, communities, societies, and political systems, attuned and modified to the needs of the circuit, in far more qualitative terms.

The “Golden Age” (not really so golden) of win-win shared growth prosperity in the overdeveloped North has long since passed. Almost every drop of fossil capital and what the late political economist Samir Amin called “imperialism rent” is now needed to shore up flagging growth rates. G7 share of world GDP peaked at 67 percent in 1988 and, although this is still quite disproportionate to population size, as of 2010, stands at less than 50 percent. Interestingly, this correlates with economist Branco Milanovic’s calculation that the “citizenship premium” seems to have peaked approximately ten years ago. In one of his last articles, Amin comes to a remarkably similar conclusion. Over the past decade or so “imperialism rent” increasingly flows to oligopolistic monopolies, not in a real sense to “national” economies, nor evenly: “The privileged (high salaries) have become the direct agents of the dominant oligopolistic class, while the others are pauperized.” This still spills over to many far outside the upper echelons, including to many workers who remain tied to the fortunes of firm and nation. And can be seen not only in income levels but phenomena like vaccine apartheid. It is not yet the case that these more direct forms of governance and rule happen, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote of colonial possessions in the early twentieth century, “without any attempt to disguise them.” But the “sermonizers, counselors, and ‘confusion-mongers’” Fanon identified as crucially intervening in colonizing societies are now working overtime in the metropole.

The rolling legitimation crises of our time are the evidence of just how much ideology in the form of consent is breaking down and just how much direct coercion is ever more the norm, even for groups who were not previously subject to colonization. In the face of this coercion, massive increases in repressive apparatuses, personal and social “structural adjustment,” and the palpable experience of anthropogenic climate change, the interests of some workers and majorities in general (if far from universal), begin to align with, the refugee, the South Asian or Latin American peasant, as well as with those already racialized and/or colonized in the North. The concrete realities of the extractive circuit place such individuals and communities far closer to the super-majorities of the Global South than “the 1” or even “10 percent.” In other words, unevenly and to vastly different degrees, more and more are in the colony now.


Colony of the Exhausted

The point here is not simply to invert a Panglossian, Pinkeresque worldview, but rather to see dialectically, as Walter Benjamin suggested. Climate change itself is the most obvious contemporary avatar of Benjamin’s “storm of progress,” an almost unimaginable techno-social achievement containing within it an almost unimaginable horror. Weathering the storm requires overturning ideals of both progress and regress. The example of Cuban agroecology is illustrative. Beginning in the 1990s, scientists, peasants, and other agricultural personnel launched a series of agroecological experiments drawing on traditional practices and contemporary scientific research in agronomy and ecology. Over three years such projects demonstrated not only enhancements in soil quality and biodiversity but also increased yields, decreased energy inputs, and decreased labor hours (down to four to five hours per day). The new methodologies would eventually scale up to cover 70 percent of Cuban domestic food production. Crucially, this case helps dispel the myth that any deviation from the official path-of-progress will be met with a regress into pre-industrial drudgery (or a romanticization of an imaginary utopian past). In contrast, it underscores what I have called elsewhere the “temporal freedom” that contributes to a socioecologically necessary systemic slow down, provides a palpable, extraordinary emancipation possible within a sustainable, flourishing global human ecological niche. Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe recently summarized the many ecological and quasi-utopian social and economic advantages of “less work”.

How has this level of degradation become so acceptable?

With capitalism increasingly experienced as inherently dysfunctional, the question about living on a warming planet is not how individuals or communities can become more “resilient” to climate change. Rather, the question is, how has this level of degradation become so acceptable? Profits may be at an all-time high, but capitalism as we know it—capitalism as the organizing principle of our ecological niche—is difficult to maintain. As the sociologist Oliver Nachtwey has recently noted, neither financialization by itself nor neoliberalism as a whole was able “to stop the wellsprings of growth from drying up.”

Strangely, this turn of affairs is better acknowledged in global business discourse—as the “productivity crisis”—than it is in many common left theories, ecologically oriented or otherwise. Global North growth rates, as argued by both liberal economists like Robert Gordon and Larry Summers through the “secular stagnation” thesis, or more contemporary Marxian accounts like Aaron Benanav’s work on industrial overcapacity and the long economic downturn, will never return to the 5 percent or greater rates regularly experienced during the “Thirty Glorious Years.” It is far more likely that growth will hover at around 1 to 2 percent or otherwise enter a period of stasis, permanent recession, or some mix of the two.

What is often lost in ecological debates is that growth itself, whether one wants it or not, appears to be largely at an end. While Global South states will continue to grow (even as rates in states like the PRC or India are in fact falling), this is highly unlikely to make up for the collapse in the Global North. In every sense except automatic collapse, capitalism as we know it lives on borrowed time. More centrally to the question of a politics of the Anthropocene is how much time and where it’s borrowed from. Measured by emissions and the toll of climate change, every ounce of anemic growth becomes catastrophically expensive. From a socioecological point-of-view, as I’ve argued elsewhere, “we” are investing ever more resources—ecological, social, individual, even political—for paltry returns, a grim present, and a darkening future for the majority of human beings.

Transnational corporations—while having a longer history—only became globally dominant in the postwar era, with increased activity mostly coming after the 1960s. Correlation is of course not causation, but the correlation between climate change and the rise of these TNCs—first in industries like fossil fuels and resource extraction, later with the expansion of GVCs particularly in the late 1970s and onward—is staggering. “Acceleration” is aptly put; this is a system predicated not only on increasing material and economic rates as recorded in “Great Acceleration” graphs but quite literally in its speed: the exponential explosion of ecological and economic transformations, facilitated by financialization, fossil fuels, and every socioecological process described, and additionally the experiences, the feelings, of such velocity and violence. In this period, as macrofinancial economist Hyun Song Shin identifies (and economic historian Adam Tooze cites in analyzing the 2008 financial crisis) “island models” of national economies give way, in terms of both value chains and finance, to “an ‘interlocking matrix’ of corporate balance sheets,” in a truly suprasovereign system.

There has never been a time when capital could move more rapidly or more freely—from firm to firm; from geography to geography. It could even, theoretically, move out of bounds entirely—capital could cash out (it could be worse as McKenzie Wark remarks). Today, some 80 percent of global trade happens through far-flung, high-speed GVCs. Of that, 60 percent is in intermediate goods and services. In other words, most trade is happening firm-to-firm or within a cross-border GVC. These emissions and this form of trade is inextricably linked to fossil fuels, “sacrifice zones,” and generalized exhaustion.

Although capitalism, particularly in this form, promises a cheap, sleek, efficient path to plenty and prosperity, it delivers instead a costly, privatized system based on impossible inputs in a finite natural and social world—so unimaginably cumbersome and irrational that it requires constant, vigilant, crisis-level maintenance from the scale of the microbial to the human brain to states, geopolitics, and beyond. It delivers all-time high atmospheric carbon concentrations of 419 parts per million, the hottest year on record, a climate change induced pandemic which promises both continuation and future epidemiological crises, extreme weather events from wildfires burning Siberian permafrost to Indian flooding, Pacific Northwest extreme heat, and all those political economic, social, and personal structural adjustments that are the daily violence of the extractive circuit. This socioecological violence is a constant norm of this moment for the vast majority of people on earth, “an atmosphere of permanent insecurity” as Fanon called it. “There is, first of all, the fact that the colonized person, who in this respect is like the men in underdeveloped countries or in the disinherited in all parts of the world, perceives life not as a flowering or a development of essential productiveness but as a permanent struggle against omnipresent death.” While normative disaster management literatures preach absorption, quiescence, internalization, Fanon instead proposes externalization, which “implies restructuring the world.” What we are promised—through market-based delusions, through techno-mystical fantasies, and romantic reveries—is a return to normal that is hardly possible and not particularly desired or desirable. The extractive circuit describes the zero-sum game of a bifurcated world.

Accounts can often make it seem as if capital hovers about the Earth in almost ethereal form. But the extractive circuit is not a metaphor. It works through real people, specific geographies, economically strategic areas organizing, linking, and connecting our global human ecological niche. The granular level I began with in my paradigmatic example is the very real, material workings of this system. Imperialism does not vanish in such a system, but it is now a layer beneath. Colonization is more generalized. States (in a wide variety of forms) still play a crucial if dramatically changed role even when considered over the course of the last fifty years. But whether one is committed to somehow keeping the system in motion in perpetuity or to hold on until a “cash-out,” the extractive circuit, and its maintenance, one piece of it or another, currently has your fealty. It is the exhausted world—the climate—capitalism built.


November 2, 2021: This essay has been slightly updated since our October printing.

[1] GDP is notoriously poor at capturing genuine social development and/or quality-of-life issues as perhaps most famously explored by the literatures on communist-led Kerala, which achieved human development levels on par with many wealthy countries with an incredibly low GDP. It is remarkable though, in discussions of climate and economics, massive redistribution from the top down globally is often painted as unpalatable in the North. But even with the extremely limited quantitative tools at hand it seems to escape scrutiny that such redistribution effectively aimed at eliminating the top 10 percent or even 20 percent of highest incomes to raise socioecological standards for the bottom 90 percent would clearly benefit majorities even in the United States. Median per capita wealth in the United States is $79,274 in 2021, far below the $100,000 that comprises the top wealth decile and even the $82,000 for the top 20 percent. This is not to disregard how US per capita GDP is rich by global standards but rather to show in even the most basic terms how much ground there is for converging interests in radical climate politics across seemingly unlikely global positions while at the same time underlining how income and wealth at US median levels does not translate to standard-of-living or quality-of-life conditions, a general problem with GDP as a concept and measure while reflected in critical development literatures.

[2] The concept of “planetary boundaries” was proposed by the environmental scientist Johan Rockstrom et al in 2009 as a way to measure “a safe operating space for humanity with respect to the functioning of the Earth System.” They would answer the question prompted by the Anthropocene: “What are the non-negotiable planetary preconditions that humanity needs to respect in order to avoid the risk of deleterious or even catastrophic environmental change at continental to global scales?” As later clarified and expanded by chemist Will Steffen et al in 2015, the concept of planetary boundaries does not draw lines at thresholds or tipping points where “a biophysical threshold” is “likely to exist” but “rather upstream of it—i.e., well before reaching the threshold.” Planetary boundaries are not the only model of such a space but any real sustainable model requires this fundamental shift in conceptualizing and dealing with socioecological risk in ways entirely antithetical to the financialized, just-in-time, high-speed world of 21st century capitalism.

[3] While some hallucinate a “good” Amazon or “socialist” Walmart as the backbone of a “Good Anthropocene”, a 2019 public letter signed by nearly nine thousand Amazon employees detail the ways in which the company is in no way currently compatible with even the simplest necessities of climate mitigation and adaptation. For all its stark and brave honesty, the letter actually underplays Amazon’s ecological unsustainability in terms of climate and society. Amazon is paradigmatic of the extractive circuit; not only in terms of the structure of the firm but also in the ways it has shaped many intrinsically socially and ecologically catastrophic technologies, and, as explored further here, what the speed of such firms facilitate.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a core faculty member specializing in social and political theory. Ajay is currently working on a book of political theory for the Anthropocene. He has written for the Guardian, n+1, Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.

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