Florin Poenaru: The Wealth of Nations: Nature as Capital and Eco-criticism as Anti-Capitalism

In autumn of 2013, Romania witnessed some of the biggest post-1989 protests. From September to early December, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in major cities. People were furious about the government making a deal with a Canadian mining multinational for an opencast mine in Roșia Montana, a small mining town located in the Apuseni Mountains. In the making for almost 16 years, the project had been mired in controversy from the outset (e.g., see Kalb 2006). First, its very existence and the lack of transparency about what the deal included raised suspicions of complicity between local politicians of all stripes and the Canadian mining firm behind the project. Allegations of conflicts of interest, illicit lobbying, and top-level corruption were abundant. Long-term journalist investigations gave credence to many such views, documenting a vast network of business and political interests, both local and global, undergirding the project (Gotiu 2013).

Second, and equally important, the project’s ecological impact would be nothing short of astonishing. To extract the gold, silver, and rare metals hidden in the four mountains, some 12,000 tons of cyanide would be used, generating some 13 million tons of mining waste per year. To put it bluntly, the project would transform the entire region into a huge lake with deadly cyanide levels—not only in this regard would it be one of the biggest such projects in the world. What was worse, according to the contract between the state and the company, which today remains largely secret, an annual €500 million expense for repairing the ecological damage would be forked out from the state budget.

Initially, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, the company bidding for the project, tried to downplay the ecological impact by enrolling expert voices to its ranks. Only in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary did Rosia Montana backtrack and change tack. A public relations campaign to the estimated cost of some €1 million now presented the project as an excellent opportunity for a very deprived region with high unemployment rates to finally achieve prosperity. By emphasizing this aspect, the company managed to rally many locals to its cause. This created tensions between them and the protesters, who were depicted as well-off urban dwellers with an ecology-centric mindset and little concern for the economic well-being of ailing rural populations. All this could not prevent the emergence of a mass movement against the mining project. This was sparked on 1 September 2013 by the Romanian government announcing that a special law would be drafted and passed through Parliament swiftly in order to give the project the green light.

This announcement enraged many Romanians for two reasons. First, the government coalition of social democrats and liberals had actually just come to power precisely because both parties opposed the project in their campaigns in late 2012. Their rivals—the Democrat-Liberals and Romanian President Traian Basescu, with no current party affiliation albeit a former Democrat-Liberal leader—had all been staunch supporters of the project from the very beginning. The 2013 governmental U-turn toward support for the Rosia Montana project has since been ironically declared ultimately as proof that those who believed all Romanian parties and politicians to be “garbage” were actually right. Chants from the 2012 protest campaign declaring politicians were “garbage” would be widely heard during the 2013 marches. Second, as the present coalition held more than 70 percent of the seats in Parliament, passing the law to secure the project would have been a mere formality. Therefore, what ultimately forged a broad coalition and made millions take to the streets was the fact that street actions had become the last resort.

The Romanian protests of 2013, and the social transformations they responded to, compel us to rethink the relationship between nature, land, and contemporary processes of capitalist production and accumulation. Land appears to be again salient for accumulation, leading to processes of land grabbing and land enclosures. Therefore, the planned gold mining project in Romania, plus a series of fracking projects that show similar political-economic trajectories, are something other than simple expressions of a familiar story—that of greedy multinational corporations plundering the periphery. Instead, they signal the return to land investment as a very secure and highly productive form of capital accumulation. Giovanni Arrighi noted that the Western, capitalist sequence of development was an “unnatural” path, which was based mainly on financial expansion and speculation. Land investment was considered opportune only in times of financial contraction and crisis, usually at the end of an accumulation cycle (Arrighi 1994: 6–9).

Despite a strong case for Arrighi’s model in Romania today, the question for now remains whether this is just the last vestige of the present systemic cycle of accumulation or indeed the beginning of a new one. This is because of one important dimension that can be turned against Arrighi’s model in the Romanian case. Land here was not “grabbed” for the purpose of agricultural production, but rather to extract resources that as commodities maintain a largely speculative character. Although agricultural produce in its commodity form and since the opening of the first commodity futures exchanges in Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century (cf. Davis 2001: 120–121) obviously has a speculative character to it as well, there is an important difference here. Both shale gas and gold, and foremost in the particular case of a project at planning stage in a highly contested setting such as Romania, are inextricably linked to a gamble on future commodity prices.

What is certain, though, is that in the Romanian context, processes of primitive accumulation are again salient. The object of primitive accumulation is not only people’s individual means of production, but also public wealth. So, the logic is not only that of freeing and expanding the labor force, but also of expanding capitalist accumulation interests beyond existing market relations and, to some extent, beyond established relations of production. This is because the processes of land enclosure and land grabbing point to a “reprimarization” of the Romanian economy—that is, a return to a reliance on primary export products.

What, then, is at stake in Romania? And what is contested? Some groups in the Romanian protest movement, on the left and on the right, speak of a neocolonial situation, and this has fueled nationalistic calls for protecting the property of the Romanian people. But the bigger picture shows that there is more at stake than this, and so the worry of the protesters should be more encompassing of the intricacies of particular cycles of systemic accumulation.

For many countries and people around the world, nature has remained their only reliable source of income and revenue—despite several “development decades” that the United Nations and others have declared to “liberate” all countries from dependency on primary resource extraction. Thus, to the nations that did not “make it,” nature appears directly as capital, not just in theory but also in practice. Nature itself becomes the wealth of the nation. Marx noted quite some time ago how the rationale behind any (new) forms of land enclosure must be linked with the debt of the sovereign states (Marx 1990 [1867]: 919). This is what provides the bigger picture; in a situation of financial dependency, states are forced to sell public assets in order to generate income, even a modicum one, as is the case in the Rosia Montana mining project, which had high state expenditure projected but modest direct state revenues.

Therefore, one of the shortcomings of the booming literature on the current crisis—including David Harvey’s work, for example (2005: 15–16)—is that it is concerned mostly with the fall of the rate of profit for the capitalist class and less so with the fall in the states’ revenues. For on another level, states appear unable or unwilling to tax capital—for various reasons, including the fact that one of the most important effects of tax cuts is not only that it makes the rich richer, but also that it deliberately provokes a crisis of state budgets—states can only engage in austerity measures and privatization of assets, including the ceding of land to corporate interests for paltry sums. This is evident in the way dispossession is being achieved in Romania: The state uses its legislative prerogatives and repressive apparatuses, which ultimately served to scare many protesters off the streets, to transfer large chunks of land and other public assets into private hands. As such, this is done through political decisions, not market mechanisms.

So the state is central and pivotal in Romania’s present-day primitive accumulation. What we witness in the Rosia Montana case may point to a process by which state intervention effectively does away with the market altogether. This is because any market operations are suspended if large-scale projects are not granted along established partnerships of state and capital, as enquiries into Romanian politicians’ motives for turning away from their election campaign promises indicate. The Rosia Montana mining project, as much as other projects, was allocated based on political decisions and calculations that argued for the importance of particular “strategic partners.”

This, of course, elicits again discussions about “corruption” and imperfect eastern European capitalism—echoing slogans of the protesters. But here we should follow Arrighi’s suggestion that in order to understand these processes, we should leave the noisy sphere of the market—which exists less and less anyway—as wells as the hidden abode of the production sphere. This enables us to pay attention to the political level where state officials, especially in peripheral contexts, meet the owners of big, global capital (Arrighi 1994: 26). Precisely at this meeting point one can discern the nature of contemporary capitalism and its main driving forces. The outcome of this intersection is that while it weakens the governing class in relation to global capital and global ruling classes, it in fact strengthens local politicians and state administrators not only against people taking to the streets. Local strata of politicians also gain the upper hand over local capitalists, who were furious to see their calls for subsidies and lower energy prices ignored as money was given to foreign investors in the public utilities. Ultimately, then, the remaking of the social framework in Romania that began with the end of the socialist state and initially saw the rise of a local oligarchy came full circle after 25 years. Therefore, while the state may seem weakened in relation to global capital, at home the state is more and more powerful.

Moreover, in the return to land as a primary means of accumulation, as mapped above, we witness in fact the formation of a new imperial cartography and new geopolitical realignments. The way Romanian politicians have argued their position in favor of both fracking and gold exploitation is textbook Adam Smith. Basically, they expressed the view that the state needs to give up part of its sovereignty and national wealth in order to ensure security, both military and geopolitical. Or, in short, prosperity is necessarily subordinated to security, as Smith emphasized (Smith 1977 [1776]: 922). Against this background, it is important to remember Fernando Coronil’s addendum to the Marxian dictum that the relationship between capital profit, labor wages and land rent is fundamental in the process of social production. Coronil noted that Marx’s analysis of capitalism tended to privilege the capital–labor relation and tended to assume that land (by which he meant the socially mediated power of nature) would be absorbed by capital (Coronil 1997: 6–9).

In the current context, the proper Marxist approach is not to abandon the analysis of contradictions between capital and labor. It is equally important to add an analysis of the role of land in capital accumulation. This is important not least because of the aforementioned paradoxes that emerged during the Romanian protests. The labor–capital conflict was re-codified by the corporations themselves. Basically, the corporations presented themselves in a classically neoliberal way as the defenders of the rights of rural populations to work and to have an income, which was facilitated by the fact that both mining and fracking are taking place in some of the poorest regions of the country, and indeed of Europe. Based on this perverse notion of rights, the corporate public relations campaign placed the (urban) protesters on the other side of the trenches. Thus, while urban protesters were shouting against the corporations and against the destruction of the environment, the corporations were simply retorting that they would create jobs and give significant revenue to the state with which to pay pensions and salaries. Corporate profit was recast not as antinomical to labor, but ultimately as its ally, offering rare opportunities for areas with high unemployment rates. While protesters appeared as lofty, romantic, utopian nature lovers dreaming of eco-agriculture from their comfortable urban contexts, the corporations were busy defending poor people’s needs for jobs. Little wonder, then, that apart from two or three major cities where a veritable mass movement emerged, the protests had little echo in the wider population.

Only by going back to rethinking land, nature, and capitalism can the falsity of this position be rendered clear. Therefore, instead of simply seeing nature as natural capital, we should see nature as directly constitutive of wealth. From Adam Smith on, nature was considered not as a central element of economic theory, but rather as a limiting boundary to economic development, or a cause for crisis. From Ricardo to Malthus and Mill, nature was increasingly made into an external factor that could be abstracted from production (Smith 1990: 17). This tradition is still dominant today in mainstream ecological and economic thinking, nature being seen as the ultimate external limit to growth.

The problem with this current ecological theory and practice is that in the struggle over nature, the social relation with nature under capitalism becomes of secondary importance; the political struggle is not aimed at critiquing the capitalist use and production of nature, but rather at the general misuse and domination of nature by the human species. The human condition, not capitalism, becomes the main culprit and target, and as such the solutions also take a personal and moralistic character, not a systemic and relational one.

Moreover and more generally, such a conception is still indebted to the Industrial Revolution and to the dualism of nature that emerged then: nature as external (out there) and nature as universal (humans are natural human beings existing within an ecological environment, like everybody else).

How do we think and act ecologically in this context, then, without falling into the trap of the bourgeois dualism of nature? This is an even more complicated question in the case of fracking and gold, not only because of the scale and environmental destruction they presuppose, but also because they are part of what Arturo Escobar called “techno-nature”—that is, the technically created “natural” resources (Escobar 1999).

My suggestion is that we need to focus not on nature as such, but rather on the production of nature and, more concretely, on the production of nature in a particular capitalist global context. Instead of the “domination of nature” paradigm (either in its positive or negative implications), we need to replace it with the “production of nature” and thus highlight its socially constructed character. Instead of the bourgeois dualism between nature and society, we need to focus instead on the process of social labor.

This is urgent, since what determines the relationship with nature under capitalism is an abstract logic of accumulation and profit. Nature itself is subordinated to it and becomes simply a means of production and a direct source of wealth. As Marx already noted, in a Hegelian vein, in capitalism, the second nature completely takes over the first nature; it manages to thoroughly transform and alter it (cf. Foster 2000: 6–9).

Therefore, the point is not to stop altering nature, or to reduce this process to a human scale sensible to the needs of nature and human beings, as proponents of ecological economics suggest. This is utopian, essentialist, and non-dialectical. Since we cannot not produce, reproduce, and incorporate nature in our processes of social labor, the point is then to socialize the means of producing nature and thus delink this process from the imperative of profit and private accumulation. This is the proper ecological perspective: not a romantic return to nature but a refusal of the naturalness of capitalism.

Florin Poenaru is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the Central European University, Budapest.

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Cite as: Poenaru, Florin. 2014. “The wealth of nations: Nature as capital and eco-criticism as anti-capitalism,” FocaalBlog, July 17, www.focaalblog.com/2014/07/17/the-wealth-of-nations-nature-as-capital-and-eco-criticism-as-anti-capitalism-florin-poenaru.