Natural limits, proliferating limits, lifeboats

Most know something of Garrett Hardin’s in/famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Fewer have read that essay carefully. In many ways, it and Hardin’s subsequent work are the basis of arguments that there are ‘genuine concerns’ about migration.

Hardin’s premise is that of natural scarcity, in other terms: natural limits. In some accounts, natural limits serves as a necessary brake on capitalist accumulation, one that exists outside of society and ‘in nature’ and thereby assumes the character of an inevitability. This is the catastrophic version. In others, natural limits came to imply – as it also did for Hardin – the urgency of political control over the economy. This is the authoritarian version. In either case, as with Hardin, these derive from a series of neo-Aristotelian dichotomies between economic and political domains, nature and society, and so on.

Obviously these are approaches I take issue with, at some length in Contract & Contagion, which puts forward a theory of proliferating limits against that of natural limits.

In C&C, the discussion is around (against) the conflation of Polanyi and Marx, suggesting instead a combined emphasis on capital overtaking limits to accumulation and the reinstatement of capital’s own limits. Moreover, contrary to the emphasis placed on deregulation and liberalisation in prevailing understandings of ‘neoliberalism‘ and globalisation theory, my argument has been that “beyond and around the obvious walls of migration control, the architectures and technologies of the border proliferate,” and that this includes “proliferating borders of a more intimate kind,” such as the limits enacted through debt, welfare and risk management involved in “new rounds of extraction” (“Borders 2.0,” 2008). That’s been a fairly consistent development of an argument over some time: i) that ‘globalization’ involved the recourse to draconian migration controls (in “Habeas Corpus,” 2001); that “the proliferation of the nation-state as the prime political form has been an international process” (in a 2010 interview with Shift magazine), and so on.

How is all of that relevant to Hardin?

First, the logical steps in Hardin’s mathematical and abstract formulations (of game theory, optimization, Malthusian statistics, and so on) were really ways of logically encoding nation, gender and race. (There’s a far longer discussion of the history and philosophy of ‘the commons’ here and a related analysis of such logical encoding here.) Briefly put, Hardin is a neo-Aristotelian, albeit one who emphasises the categories of statistical populations and an abstract definition of ‘resources.’

Secondly, Hardin was an unabashed racist, in that special way which combines the urge to control women’s bodies and regulate sexuality with defending the reproduction of the white, Christian race, and hating on the (racialised) poor. In Hardin’s view, ‘overpopulation’ amounted to the existential danger to the (white) American way of life and living standards. He was virulently anti-(non-white) immigration, and spent most of his years campaigning for the closure of US borders on the grounds of averting imminent ecological collapse. Indeed, Hardin is one of the more prominent theorists of ‘white genocide,’ in his terms: “passive genocide.” I recommend reading this article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, if the implications of Hardin’s reasoning are unclear thus far.

The brief point, then, is that Hardin’s theory of natural limits and that of proliferating limits have nothing in common. Nor does the theory of natural limits (or scarcity) have anything much to do with Marx’s writings.

To take but one example, natural limits theory implicitly treats ‘resources’ as if they are nature’s gift (to Adam from God), as if they (and indeed, any ‘use’) existed independently of the sociohistorical manner of their appropriation. The framing here is contract and covenant, but that is a longer discussion. But once the issue of resources is framed in this way, and reasoned in the supposedly abstract, the only remaining course is to bemoan their depletion and yearn for more prudential limits to the frenetic pace of their exploitation. This is theoretically nonsensical, politically dangerous, and at best conducive to a risk management approach. Fossil fuels do not exist independently or prior to methods of exploration, their extraction, the technologies through which they become useful energy, the industries that give rise to them and which are fueled by them. It avoids, in other words, the more difficult question about restructuring by lamenting scarcity, promoting austerity and furnishing a purportedly natural set of reasons for closing the borders and treating family, race and nation as if they were analogous to lifeboats.

As it happens, Hardin wrote a nasty little essay called “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor” in the mid-1970s.

But Hardin was not the first to use the lifeboat as a metaphor in a case for selective redemption before the coming apocalypse.

It was the American evangelist Dwight L. Moody who invented ‘lifeboat ethics’ by analogizing evangelism as that very lifeboat. As Moody described his mission, God gave him lifeboat upon which he might save some worthy souls before the inevitable apocalypse. Which brings us around to natural law understandings of economics – as with current conflicts around US healthcare.

That the theory of natural limits facilitates, among other things, reactionary arguments for border control is only part of the issue, but an important one to me. So I am a little perplexed when those who claim to be serious marxists and/or to critically theorise the border promulgate a theory of natural limits when they shift to discussing the environment. After all, ‘ecology’ has the same derivation as ‘economics,’ that is: oikonomia. There are Hardin’s metaphysical lifeboats, which encode particular modes of coal-fired transport and racial-national categories into mathematical formulations of ‘ways of life,’ and then there are very real lifeboats, those which undertake voyages made more dangerous as a result of a widespread acceptance of Hardin’s theory of natural limits.

3 thoughts on “Natural limits, proliferating limits, lifeboats”

  1. Which essay? I was collecting my thoughts and cutting across a few conversations. There were a few immediate prompts for this post: an ongoing conversation with Out Woods’ work on environmental and migration politics; about to engage with the excellent work being done over at Future Souths on contracts and extraction industries, including O’Reilly’s work on frakking (which refreshingly does not fall back on the boilerplate naturalism in most accounts of frakking); and that reference to ‘lifeboats’ is from my short piece on “Dispensing God’s Care” (a short paragraph on Moody and lifeboats didn’t make it into the final cut in the New Inquiry version).


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