Capitalism is a system for concentrating wealth, which makes possible new investments, which further concentrate wealth. This process is accumulation. Classic models take us to the factory: factory owners concentrate wealth by paying workers less than the value of the goods that the workers produce each day. Owners “accumulate” investment assets from this extra value.
Even in factories, however, there are other elements of accumulation. In the nineteenth century, when capitalism first became an object of inquiry, raw materials were imagined as an infinite bequest from Nature to Man. Raw materials can no longer be taken for granted. In our food procurement system, for example, capitalists exploit ecologies not only by reshaping them but also by taking advantage of their capacities. Even in industrial farms, farmers depend on life processes outside their control, such as photosynthesis and animal digestion. In capitalist farms, living things made within ecological processes are coopted for the concentration of wealth. This is what I call “salvage,” that is, taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control. Many capitalist raw materials (consider coal and oil) came into existence long before capitalism. Capitalists also cannot produce human life, the prerequisite of labor. “Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works.
Sites for salvage are simultaneously inside and outside capitalism; I call them “pericapitalist.” All kinds of goods and services produced by pericapitalist activities, human and nonhuman, are salvaged for capitalist accumulation. If a peasant family produces a crop that enters capitalist food chains, capital accumulation is possible through salvaging the value created in peasant farming. Now that global supply chains have come to characterize world capitalism, we see this process everywhere. “Supply chains” are commodity chains that translate value to the benefit of dominant firms; translation between noncapitalist and capitalist value systems is what they do.
Salvage accumulation through global supply chains is not new, and some well-known earlier examples can clarify how it works. Consider the nineteenth-century ivory supply chain connecting central Africa and Europe as told in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. The story turns around the narrator’s discovery that the European trader he much admired has turned to savagery to procure his ivory. The savagery is a surprise because everyone expects the European presence in Africa to be a force for civilization and progress. Instead, civilization and progress turn out to be cover-ups and translation mechanisms for getting access to value procured through violence: classic salvage. For a brighter view of supply-chain translation, consider Herman Melville’s account of the nineteenth-century procurement of whale oil for Yankee investors. Moby-Dick tells of a ship of whalers whose rowdy cosmopolitanism contrasts sharply with our stereotypes of factory discipline; yet the oil they obtain from killing whales around the world enters a U.S.-based capitalist supply chain. Strangely, all the harpooners on the Pequod are unassimilated indigenous people from Asia, Africa, America, and the Pacific. The ship is unable to kill a single whale without the expertise of people who are completely untrained in U.S industrial discipline. But the products of this work must eventually be translated into capitalist value forms; the ship sails only because of capitalist financing. The conversion of indigenous knowledge into capitalist returns is salvage accumulation. So too is the conversion of whale life into investments.
Before you conclude that salvage accumulation is archaic, let me turn to a contemporary example. Technological advances in managing inventory have energized today’s global supply chains; inventory management allows lead firms to source their products from all kinds of economic arrangements, capitalist and otherwise. One firm that helped put such innovations in place is the retail giant Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart pioneered the required use of universal product codes (UPCs), the black-and-white bars that allow computers to know these products as inventory. The legibility of inventory, in turn, means that Wal-Mart is able to ignore the labor and environmental conditions through which its products are made: pericapitalist methods, including theft and violence, may be part of the production process. With a nod to Woody Guthrie, we might think about the contrast between production and accounting through the two sides of the UPC tag. One side of the tag, the side with the black-and-white bars, allows the product to be minutely tracked and assessed. The other side of the tag is blank, indexing Wal-Mart’s total lack of concern with how the product is made, since value can be translated through accounting. Wal-Mart has become famous for forcing its suppliers to make products ever more cheaply, thus encouraging savage labor and destructive environmental practices. Savage and salvage are often twins: Salvage translates violence and pollution into profit.
As inventory moves increasingly under control, the requirement to control labor and raw materials recedes; supply chains make value from translating values produced in quite varied circumstances into capitalist inventory. One way of thinking about this is through scalability, the technical feat of creating expansion without the distortion of changing relations. The legibility of inventory allows scalable retail expansion for Wal-Mart without requiring that production be scalable. Production is left to the riotous diversity of nonscalability, with its relationally particular dreams and schemes. We know this best in “the race to the bottom”: the role of global supply chains in promoting coerced labor, dangerous sweatshops, poisonous substitute ingredients, and irresponsible environmental gouging and dumping. Where lead firms pressure suppliers to provide cheaper and cheaper products, such production conditions are predictable outcomes. As in Heart of Darkness, unregulated production is translated in the commodity chain, and even reimagined as progress. This is frightening. At the same time, as J. K. Gibson-Graham argue in their optimistic reach toward a “postcapitalist politics,” economic diversity can be hopeful. Pericapitalist economic forms can be sites for rethinking the unquestioned authority of capitalism in our lives. At the very least, diversity offers a chance for multiple ways forward—not just one.
In her insightful comparison between the supply chains for French green beans (haricots verts) that link West Africa with France and East Africa with Great Britain, respectively, geographer Susanne Freidberg offers a sense of how supply chains, drawing variously on colonial and national histories, may encourage quite different economic forms. French neocolonial schemes mobilize peasant cooperatives; British supermarket standards encourage expatriate scam operations. Within and across differences such as these, there is room for building a politics to confront and navigate salvage accumulation. But following Gibson-Graham to call this politics “postcapitalist” seems to me premature. Through salvage accumulation, lives and products move back and forth between noncapitalist and capitalist forms; these forms shape each other and interpenetrate. The term “pericapitalist” acknowledges that those of us caught in such translations are never fully shielded from capitalism; pericapitalist spaces are unlikely platforms for a safe defense and recuperation.
At the same time, the more prominent critical alternative—shutting one’s eyes to economic diversity—seems even more ridiculous in these times. Most critics of capitalism insist on the unity and homogeneity of the capitalist system; many, like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, argue that there is no longer a space outside of capitalism’s empire. Everything is ruled by a singular capitalist logic. As for Gibson-Graham, this claim is an attempt to build a critical political position: the possibility of transcending capitalism. Critics who stress the uniformity of capitalism’s hold on the world want to overcome it through a singular solidarity. But what blinders this hope requires! Why not instead admit to economic diversity?
My goal in bringing up Gibson-Graham and Hardt and Negri is not to dismiss them; indeed, I think they are perhaps the early twenty-first century’s most trenchant anticapitalist critics. Furthermore, by setting out strongly contrasting goal posts between which we might think and play, they jointly do us an important service. Is capitalism a single, overarching system that conquers all, or one segregated economic form among many? Between these two positions, we might see how capitalist and noncapitalist forms interact in pericapitalist spaces. Gibson-Graham advise us, quite correctly I think, that what they call “noncapitalist” forms can be found everywhere in the midst of capitalist worlds—rather than just in archaic backwaters. But they see such forms as alternatives to capitalism. Instead, I would look for the noncapitalist elements on which capitalism depends. Thus, for example, when Jane Collins reports that workers in Mexican garment assembly factories are expected to know how to sew before they begin their jobs, because they are women, we are offered a glimpse of noncapitalist and capitalist economic forms working together. Women learn to sew growing up at home; salvage accumulation is the process that brings this skill into the factory to the benefit of owners. To understand capitalism (and not just its alternatives), then, we can’t stay inside the logics of capitalists; we need an ethnographic eye to see the economic diversity through which accumulation is possible.
—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the-possibility of life in capitalist ruins.