A couple of posts ago I mentioned I was reading Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Time. I finished it a couple days ago and I've found it one of the most intellectually stimulating works that have passed through my hands in the past year. It not only illuminates the past in unexpected ways, but also provides tools for thinking about the present, and having some more clarity about what the future may hold for us, if current tendencies continue to develop (unfortunately for those loving their futurists clear, unambiguous and surefooted, Arrighi sees our civilization at a crossroads, so he always hedges his bets and delineates a number of possible future development paths we may follow).
In that post I discussed his use of Braudel's (and Pirenne and Hicks) concept of financial expansion and how it related with my own dimension of dominant form of payment (now I'll readily admit their name -and the construct behind it- is much more solid, and more exhaustively researched, than mine). Today I want to delve in a concept he only hints at towards the end of the book, which also dovetails with a persistent concern of mine: how our current civilizational phase has failed to create conditions amenable to the well being of its members, which are "outvoting" it in the most resolute and irreversible manner they have at their disposal: with their gonads.
To center the discussion, I'll use a table Arrighi presents us with to summarize the nature of each successive "cycle of accumulation":
Arrighi contends that each cycle is superseded by a more comprehensive one, which can successfully internalize more functions and thus generate additional surplus than the previous one, thus displacing it from the summit of the capitalist system.We could say that the Genoese was an entirely parasitical system that "exploited" the biggest and most dynamic territorialist states of its time (my Iberian countrymen, no less), outsourcing to them the protection of commerce enabled by their armies, and relying on goods produced abroad, from food to precious metals and budding manufactures (textile and weapons). The Dutch innovated internalizing the cost of protection, carving themselves a "thin" empire in the far East, extended enough to ensure the entrepôts where the goods were exchanged and stored where under their control. But this empire still relied on external sources for food, raw materials (from Baltic timber to spices) and most manufactured goods. The British, in turn, become more competitive through the internalization of the production process, which in turn enabled/ forced them to extend their empire territorially much further (so they could directly control the food, coal and metal sources their manufacturing industries consumed, and then exported to the rest of the world). The Americas, finally, displaced the British by creating huge corporations that regulated (and achieved greater efficiency) the "vertical" process between the extraction of the raw material to its distribution and final sale.
What the American world system could not do was internalize (and properly reward) the brute cost of reproducing the system, from two points of view: demographic (it just doesn't seem able to reward people enough to breed at least to replacement levels) and ecological (it doesn't incentivize the sustainment of an ecologically stable environment, as the rampant loss of biodiversity, acidification of oceans, topsoil degradation, freshwater exhaustion and potential anthropocentric climate change all attest). Indeed, the financial expansion characteristic of the terminal phase of each cycle of accumulation is triggered by the impossibility of generating surplus value at a rate considered "acceptable" in traditional production activities within the current technological system and social structures, and this is more or less what we are seeing since the 70's (with some admitted bumps along the way): the great era of economic growth in the West is essentially over due to the sudden stop of demographic growth, and probably, the great era of technological discovery which rode on the coattails of that economic progress has come to a stop as well, and for the same reasons (as I wrote in this post: About the decrease in the rate of technological progress).
For the non-western world things haven't seemed so dire, as they had a lot of technological (and to a certain extent, social) catch-up to do, and so could keep growing crazily even whilst adopting our very exhausted model (we have to keep things in perspective here, our model has allowed us to have it unprecedentedly good in most aspects, so it comes as no surprise every other social group is emulating it), but the more westernized they become (not just technically, as you can not adopt only part of the package, but also socially) the more abruptly their birth rates plummet, and the more quickly they realize that demographic suicide was just part of the deal... it is just the unavoidable consequence of harnessing the power of every member of the society to produce material goods to the fullest of their capabilities: you end up with lots of goodies, but not too many babies, as people is just not incentivized enough to have them.
Not that I am necessarily decrying that state of things. Earth has a finite capacity, and our species could not and can not keep growing as in the 60's indefinitely. Technology can push the boundaries of that capacity for some time, and I do not honestly know (nor do I think anybody else does) if that boundaries currently stand at 7 billion, 9 billion or 14 billion. What I do know for sure is that the boundary is not infinite, so at some point something had to give and reconduct things to a state closer to the stationary that is the norm for every other species, and for our own for most of its history. What rests to be seen is how the return to a stationary state works, and how it potentially may wreak havoc on an economic system built on the premises of uninterrupted, eternal growth. Our responsibility towards future generations (a responsibility more keenly felt by those of us that have chosen to still reproduce, I can not help but note) is to manage that transition as swiftly as possible, in that old republican spirit of leaving to future generations a natural and social world in better shape than the one we received (a task at which it is difficult not to perceive we are failing abysmally, I have to note...)