Extraction: it’s everywhere and on everything

7th October 2022 By: Saliem Fakir

We live not only in a market economy but more generally in a market society – that is to say, a space of civilisation where all human relations and similarly where all human relationships with the world are mediated through simple human calculations.”

The above quotation is from French novelist Michel Houellebecq. I enjoy his cynicism, even though I have a deem view of his depiction of women and Islam. Every novelist or writer has to be read twice or thrice to ensure that we are not too easily directed by first impressions.

Houellebecq’s writing encapsulates the dilemma of the modern era: ‘value’ is only of value if there is a relationship that enables a form of extraction (entirely a transactional act). Extraction can be described as something that is crass and involves extreme self-interest.

Extraction can occur through consent or subordination, as a result of relational asymmetry between two actors (where one has more power than the other), while pure exploitation involves the use of violence.

In the field where I work, which is climate change and the just transition, the intellectual debates on the just transition tend to be rhetorical and without depth. If we apply the lens of extraction as a broader lens over the prevailing psyche governing the behaviour and actions of individuals, firms or the State, extraction surfaces as an underlying chasm that will have influence over the nature of just transitions around the world.

In South Africa, this is highly pertinent, given that the debate on the just transition is most certainly the most advanced in the world in terms of both political device and attempts to grapple with the transition philosophically and practically. It has another dimension: the debate is entering a sphere of policy discussion that involves much more than the affected coal mining areas. It may not have dawned on role-players that this is no longer just a narrow climate justice issue but involves the very nature of South Africa’s highly extractive economy in a profound way.

Justice on the whole will determine the rate and scale of justice at the micro level.

There is not a single day that goes by without ordinary citizens being confronted with the problem of extraction – from employers who are unwilling to pay fair or minimum wages to lenders thinking nothing of increasing the debt load on the poor (as well as sovereign governments) through increased usury, municipal officers in some of the most dysfunctional and corrupt local authorities earning handsome salaries while providing less-than- optimal service (a parasitic form of civil service), and price gorging through the monopolistic tendencies of market actors that enjoy market dominance. One can also mention the growing crime of extortion by the construction mafia, whose acts are already impacting on the delivery of both public- and private-sector investments in clean energy.

Nineteenth-century German socialist revolutionary Karl Marx, drawing on contemporaries such as Ricardo Smith and Adam Smith, examined politically and philosophically the problem of extraction of value from labour input in his theory of value. As Amartya Sen notes in his latest memoir, Marx’s conception of the valorisation of labour pointed to a broader problem of extraction as an ethos that infiltrated the very fabric of society. Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford automotive company, seems to have understood this better than other capitalists. He performed a double act: pay workers low but create the illusion or more by slightly upping their salaries and extract the ‘surplus’ only to valorise the things they produced: owning their dream car, the Ford T-Model.

Single-issue advocacy has its limitations. There is a tendency to see things through a narrow lens – often with attenuated utopian inclinations. As Henry Sanderson notes in a recent book, Volt Rush, the idea that transitions will involve little conflict and will be without difficult trade-offs will test our ability to navigate unchartered political territory.

These frictions are currently playing out in Europe, where renewables companies are reaping windfall revenues because the continent’s electricity prices are pegged to gas prices for some odd reason. The European Union wants to claw back these windfalls and cap gas prices. Meanwhile, public disgruntlement as a result of high bills is leading to protests across Europe.

It is very important to understand the prevailing political economy not only theoretically but also how we can use transitions to change them. There is nothing noble in green if we simply greenwash the transition. Transitions have to be a sort of broad-based activism and not be captured by green capital seeking new fortunes and narrow single-issue activists who cannot see the bigger picture or are too ill-equipped to politically navigate difficult trade-offs.

Well-funded and professionalised special- interest groups occupy the democratic deficit, because of the failure of political representatives to take these issues on. Activists are vital in society and important for transparency and accountability, but they can also be driven by group instincts and often do not provide the means to navigate difficult and tricky trade-offs that have to be made.

There is a good reason why we need to enhance the democratisation of transitions, as we would not want the just transition to be captured by special interests or have a situation whereby organised groups are the only voices articulating what is best for society. Deciding on complex trade-offs – that is, making choices between the lesser of two evils – should not be the prerogative of the loudest in our society.

As an example, how do debt-ridden countries finance the transition if they do not have any export commodities besides fossil fuels? How do we ensure that the displacement of fossil fuels does not lead to more debt and loss of jobs in an industry that is increasingly being automated and where the technology has to be imported? Should we not be as concerned about child labour in cobalt fields where that metal in the battery that fires your electric vehicle is mined as we are about the effects of methane from gas plants?

Local lives matter too; we must be cautious and strive to ensure that the resolution of one issue – the single cause – does not lead to unintended consequences.