Capitalism’s Problem with Boundaries


These days it is common to talk about boundaries, not just national boundaries, but personal boundaries.  Our traditional categories are changing: public/private, family, work/play, gender.  Some of these are aided by technology, such as social media creating a more porous boundary between the public and private sphere, or even hormone treatment for gender. But some are emergent from our cultural and economic milieu, such as the changing nature of the family which is related to increasing wage earning capacities and legal recognition of different types of unions. 

Our categories are changing, and this was where our traditional boundaries stood. We did not have to think about them. Now that our categories are changing we are constantly talking about boundaries.  We ask, am I crossing the line? What sorts of stories and details can I share with my friends, with my family, with my colleagues?

John Bellamy Foster, in his excellent Capitalism and Robbery article, paraphrases Marx when he says that in capitalism all boundaries become barriers to overcome. This is another way to think about boundaries and where our anxiety around boundaries come from. It is not only that our categories change, but for capitalism, categories are only there to be transformed by the engine of capital into the Money-Commodity-Circuit.

One of the reasons we have an issue with boundaries in the public and private sphere is because of social media. Social media, as powered by capital, reduces all social connections such as family connections and work connections to a commodity. When all relations are commoditized, they no longer exist in the category public/private but only in the category commodity.  The boundary is between what is inside the machine of capital and what is outside the machine.

John Bellamy Foster is not talking about people creating personal boundaries, however. He is talking about physical boundaries and the encroachment of capital across physical boundaries. It is about the boundaries of the earth. The traditional story that Marx tells is that capital did not arise because people just saved a lot of money and invested it well. Instead there was a process of primitive accumulation, such as taking communal lands, plundering gold from the americas.  This is where the original capital for capitalism comes from. 

What are the boundary conditions of the earth? How were they breached? Foster distinguishes 3 moments: industrialization of agriculture, empire, and the anthropocene.  Although there are many ways to read these moments I see them as distinguished the relationship between different human beings (bios) to capital. 

Industrialization of agriculture excludes people from the ability to sustain themselves. It excludes those from outside capital or marginal within capital, such as indigenous populations and workers. In empire, those marginalized our externalized people essentially become slaves. In the anthropocene, those slaves become statical populations excluded no longer necessary in the global supply chain and excluded from the network of capital. 

We can also interpret these three moments as three moments of violence.  The first moment as the destruction of indigenous cultures and replaced with a commodified capitalist culture – epitomized by the death of many indigenous peoples. The second moment as a destruction of geographies when methods of cultivation in one ecosystem are exported to another – epitomized by the dust bowl. The third moment, as the destruction of biomes, where mechanized production feed one population by depleting a biome – epitomized by the overfishing.

There are a few movements to notice. One is the movement from the individual to the population, which is the statisticalization of human beings. The other is the change of scale from property, to geography, to biome. Another is the method of accumulation, via theft or plunder, via access and networks, and via mechanization. The gun that allowed nations to steal gold from the americas, is different from the train that allowed farmer to export unsustainable farming practices to Oklahoma, are different again from the trawler that digs the ocean floor grabbing both fish and destroying the ecosystem at the same time.

But, at its core, this discussion is about boundaries. It is about the boundaries between us and the land and between different conceptions of land itself. Is land a place where my family lives?  Is land a place that is accessible, land only exists if I can get there? Does land not exist, it is only what I extract from it? Who has extracted oil from the ground seen the land where this oil comes from, the deep earth. Is there a difference between the land I live on and the land the deer lives on? What is that boundary?

Also what should I do to the land? To the land I see, to the land I dont see, to the land I use, and to the land that others use but I also do not see?

I am not even sure if we should talk about boundaries. Boundaries are perhaps an antiquated notion and maybe let’s get rid of all boundaries.  The boundaries between land and ourselves are already porous – this is not an accident of capital but of nature. Rather in this instance it is capital that has constructed the boundaries.