Waste and Capitalism

Last night’s presentation of Surveying Waste and Capital at Trade School (NYC), lead by CUNY doctoral candidate Jesse Goldstein included a historical narrative starting in England during the enclosure movement and how the “wasteland,” originally referring to productive pasture and foraging land on the outskirts of a village’s agricultural fields, was reframed as “wasted spaces” by advocates of enclosure. During this time, the meaning of “waste” was inverted to refer to inefficient land use rather than a productive commons.

Goldstein has recently written an article on the topic in Antipode:

Abstract: This essay provides an analysis of the “dirty” history and geography of enclosure, as both an instance of primitive accumulation and a production of nature. Specifically, I reconsider the English enclosures as a  struggle over the land-use designation of “waste”.  Whereas both open fields and common waste lands were an essential and valuable part of the common right economy, advocates of enclosure came to see these same lands as wasted commons; lands that were potentially, but not yet, improved. This dialectic of waste and potential permeates the fabric of the nature produced through enclosure, which I name terra economica. Typically, this terrain has been understood as a passive repository of free resources, extending across absolute space. While such accounts consider the making of nature into a universal means of production, it is equally important to consider the ways in which nature is produced as a universal condition of production.

Plan of a medieval manor, where “common pastures” were also referred to as wastelands. From William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923.

The presentation on waste and capital then went on to look at urban filth, or “dust,” a combination of human and animal sewage, kitchen waste, ashes, and manufacturing waste that caked city streets and caused thick layers on urban waterways. Pigs and scavengers sorted useful (and edible) matter such as food scraps, metals, rags, night soil and coins from detritus in a sort of waste commons. This dust was not universally bad– it was generative as well as dangerous. On the main “characters” in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend — the filthy Thames River– can both give and take life, redeem and condemn.

We discussed the often racist, classist, and capitalist underpinnings of the progressive era’s sanitation movement to “clean up” the city of dust, disease, and the miasma of urban immigrants and industrial workers. The move to a universal infrastructure where efficiency demands that all waste is hauled away as an undifferentiated mass turns dust to trash.

The night’s discussion also included Henry Ford’s utopian and authoritarian “war on waste,” the rise of planned obsolescence and the disposable to cope with saturated markets (see Vance Packard’s Waste Makers for a contemporary critique), the recent financial meltdown and toxic loans, and finally various stances on global ecological management, from Green Capitalism to Steady-State economies. In each discussion, waste had different meanings, but was caught in the same power relations and over and over. I look forward to future articles by Goldstein and perhaps a guest post or two.

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  1. Pingback: Article Alert- Terra Economica: Waste and the Production of Enclosed Nature | Discard Studies

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