Thursday, May 07, 2009

Containing Autarky

As I was working on completing my second post on Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, I came across this highly relevant passage in David Harvey's The Limits to Capital:
The insatiable thirst of capitalism for fresh supplies of labour accounts for the vigour with which it has pursued primitive accumulation, destroying, transforming and absorbing pre-capitalist populations wherever it finds them. [...] The real troubles begin when capitalists, facing shortages of labour supply and as ever urged on by competition, induce unemployment through technological innovations which disturb the equilibrium between production and realization, between the productive forces and their accompanying social relations. The closing of the frontiers to primitive accumulation, through sheer exhaustion of possibilities, increasing resistance on the part of pre-capitalist populations, or monopolization by some dominant power, has, therefore, a tremendous significance for the long-run stability of capitalism. This was the sea-change that began to be felt increasingly as capitalism moved into the twentieth century. It was the sea-change that, far more than the rise of monopoly or finance forms of capitalism, played the crucial role in pushing capitalism deeper into the mire of global crises and led, inexorably, to the kinds of primitive accumulation and devaluation jointly wrought through inter-capitalist wars.

[...] Any regional alliance, if it is to continue the process of accumulation, must maintain access to reserves of labour as well as to those 'forces of nature' (such as key mineral resources) that are otherwise capable of monopolization. Few problems arise if reserves of both exist in the region wherein most local capital circulates. When internal frontiers close, capital has to look elsewhere or risk devaluation. The regional alliance feels the stress between capital embedded in place and capital that moves to create new and permanent centres of accumulation elsewhere. Conflict between different regional and national capitals over access to labour reserves and natural resources begin to be felt. The themes of internationalism and multinationalism run hard up against the desire for autarky as the means to preserve the position of some particular region in the face of internal contradictions and external pressures—autarky of the sort that prevailed in the 1930s, as Britain sealed in its Commonwealth trade and Japan expanded into Manchuria and mainland Asia, Germany into eastern Europe and Italy into Africa, pitting different regions against each other, each pursuing its own 'spatial fix'. Only the United States found it appropriate to pursue an 'open door' policy founded on internationalism and multilateral trading. In the end the war was fought to contain autarky and to open up the whole world to the potentialities of geographical expansion and unlimited uneven development. That solution, pursued single-mindedly under United State's hegemony after 1945, had the advantage of being super-imposed upon one of the most savage bouts of devaluation and destruction ever recorded in capitalism's violent history. And signal benefits accrued not simply from the immense destruction of capital, but also from the uneven geographical distribution of that destruction. The world was saved from the terrors of the great depression not by some glorious 'new deal' or the magic touch of Keynesian economics in the treasuries of the world, but by the destruction and death of global war.
And later, in examining the ongoing, ever-increasing military budgets, he concludes that the cycle of capital accumulation and devaluation suggests a
terrifying interpretation of military expenditures: not only must weapons be bought and paid for out of surpluses of capital and labour, but they must also be put to use. For this is the only means that capitalism has at its disposal to achieve the levels of devaluation now required.

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