By Alex V. Barnard
“Seeing all the waste exposes very clearly the priorities in our society, that making a profit is more important than feeding people, than preserving the environment, than making use of resources, than honoring peoples’ time, labor, love, and effort. What we see with waste is that once something cannot make money, it is discarded and of no value.”
The denunciation above came from a member of the group “freegan.info,” a group which since 2005 has led “trash tours” through New York City with the aim of exposing and the wealth of waste produced by our food system and—as they claim—capitalism itself. While the freegan group I studied never had more than a dozen members, their evocations of “waste” echo widely across other contemporary movements. At Occupy Wall Street, authorities and activists battled over whether it was the occupiers or the financial system that were a waste of human effort and needed to “clean up” (Bolton, Froese, and Jeffrey 2016; Liboiron 2012). The encampments’ (re)use of waste and refuse, adopted the model of longer-running networks like Food Not Bombs: to repurpose capitalism’s detritus to provide food, housing, and transport for those living, voluntarily or involuntarily, on the margins of market society (Giles 2013; Heynen 2010).
Waste may be particularly symbolically and materially visible in contemporary anti-capitalism, but claims that capitalism is “wasteful” have haunted the economic system from the beginning. What the meaning behind movements’ evocations of “waste,” though, have varied across different capitalist “waste regimes” (Gille 2008): the configuration of modes of producing, representing, and politicizing waste that dominate in a particular historical moment. Only by seeing the long-running but evolving evolving politicization of capitalism’s waste can we see the specificity of how waste is used in contemporary anti-capitalist movements—which, in my new book (Barnard 2016), I describe in terms of the use of “ex-commodities” to challenge a neo-liberal “fetish of waste.”
“A Major Wastage of the Productive Forces”
The scale of food waste confronted by contemporary freegans would have been hard to imagine in early capitalism. In an era marked by genuine scarcity of certain raw materials and inputs, farms and other capitalist enterprises squeezed “waste” in various forms out of the production process to maximize output (Miller 2000; Strasser 1999). Such material practices fit with the representations of waste within what sociologist Max Weber characterized as the “spirit” of capitalism: an ethic that promoted re-investing surplus in further production—rather than “wasting” it on consumption—as a sign of salvation. Claims that traditional models of production were “wasteful,” then, served as a potent justification for dispossession and enclosure (Goldstein 2013).
Early anti-capitalist critiques attempted to flip this attribution of wastefulness back onto capitalism itself, albeit in ways that reflected the discursive and material limits of the early-capitalist waste regime itself. Marx himself begrudgingly admitted that, in his or her quest for profit, the capitalist would squeeze wasted material and labor out of the assembly line. Still, he contended that, in aggregate, unbridled competition would set off economic crises that would lead to idle factories and unsold inventories, a situation he characterized as a “major wastage of productive forces” (Marx 1978:252).
If “capitalism” was a barrier to increasing production, so were capitalists themselves: working-class movements, for example, contrasted laborers’ productivity with their “idle” and “parasitic” supervisors (Voss 1993:99). In each of these cases, “waste” was fundamentally abstract: the difference between the quantity and quality of goods produced in a present-day capitalist system and those in an imagined socialist one. One American socialist, for example, tried to quantify the “tragedy of waste” in capitalism not by counting tons of garbage, but instead unemployed workers and unused industrial capacity (Chase 1929).
“Parasitic and Alienated Functions”
While an exact periodization is difficult, histories of waste show that, by the post-World War II period, Western capitalist economies had entered a new “waste regime.” While previously, capitalist firms’ central concern was eliminating the wastage of raw materials in order to increase production, the emerging challenge was getting people to consume—and dispose of—the super-abundant goods those firms were producing. The spirit of capitalism, and the representations of waste that went with it, were thus reframed: far from being a sin, wasting was presented as a patriotic duty while, according to the editor of Fortune magazine, “thrift is now un-American” (qtd. in Cohen 2003:125).
As before, the post-War era’s anti-capitalist politics reflected the concrete ways that waste was produced and represented in that era. While Vince Packard’s The Waste Makers’ is perhaps the best-known, reference to the new realities of “waste” abound in anti-capitalist critiques of the 1960s. Herbert Marcuse (1964:49), for example, lambasted the “socially necessary waste” of “parasitical and alienated functions” like planned obsolescence and advertising. Similarly,
Guy Debord (2000:24) of the French “Situationist” movement argued that waste could be seen in the “decline in use value” of the goods being sold to consumers—emblematized by unnecessary tail-fins on quickly-outmoded cars or excess packaging on soon-discarded household goods.
While anti-capitalist evocations of “waste” in the early 20th century focused on “how” things were produced, but mid-century, the question shifted to “what” was being produced and consumed. For intellectuals of the New Left, “What makes the spectacle of Western bourgeois society so repulsive is the waste and squander of resources on needless products of status and display” (Bell 1996:273–274). This reflected, in part, the concrete, lived experiences that anti-capitalists had of waste in each era: while an earlier factory worker might have feared being “wasted” through a layoff or workplace accident, “waste” was most manifest, in the post-war period, in household consumption and subsequent disposal.
Ex-Commodification and the Fetish of Waste
Delving into this background raises the question of whether there is really anything original about movements like freeganism. Certainly, freeganisms’ novelty comes neither from calling capitalism wasteful nor appropriating that waste to eke out a politicized existence on its margins (the Diggers were doing that in San Francisco in the mid-60s (Belasco 2007)).
What is distinctive about freegans, I argue, is there ability to recover enormous quantities of what, borrowing a term from Appadurai (1986), I call “ex-commodities.” Marxist-inclined scholars have long shown how the deliberate destruction of “use value” through discarding can be used to preserve exchange value (Horton 1997), but the processes driving this “ex-commodification” have accelerated under neo-liberalism. As attendees at freegan trash tours discovered, actors in the food system use various waste-generating practices—like strict aesthetic standards, conservative sell-by dates, or constant introductions of new products—to keep up prices in a context where policies used in the post-war period to control overproduction have been curtailed. David Giles (2013) shows much the same process at work with respect to “abject land capital”—that is, housing expressly withheld from the market to hold up property values.
But while both supermarkets and real estate firms may label such goods “wasted” or “abandoned,” the use value of these ex-commodities is still intact. Indeed, recovered ex-commodities can become the basis for entire (sub)economies of subsistence and solidarity, from collective meals of dumpster-dived food to community bike-workshops using discarded parts to “free-piles” of refurbished clothing in reclaimed, squatted houses. Ex-commodities respond to contemporary anti-capitalists’ need to get beyond simply calingl for overthrowing capitalism to building credible alternatives to it from the ground up. In a seeming paradox (of which my interviewees were well-aware), it was only through the largesse of neo-liberal ex-commodification that activists could experiment with these post-capitalist practices in New York City, for them the heart of capitalist dystopia.
Yet the representations of waste under neo-liberalism are wildly discordant with the material realities of ex-commodification. Neo-liberal policies are systematically presented as decreasing the production of waste through market mechanisms (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005:13). Alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism—be they government welfare programs or state-socialism—are in turn presented as overflowing with “waste” in various guises (Gille 2008:3). This discordance between representation and reality is papered over by a range of practices that I call “the fetish of waste,” all well-known to discard scholars: a technical apparatus designed to keep waste out of sight, environmental and industry campaigns that blame “consumers” rather than markets for ex-commodification, and hyperbolic discourses that present waste—even still-warm bagels placed on the curb just a few minutes prior—as “dirty” or “polluted.”
By “waving the banana at capitalism”—exposing wasted food on weekly “trash tours” open to the public and to media—freegans show how neo-liberalism violates its own exhortations to efficiency and judicious use of resources. The very concreteness of ex-commodities—objects labeled “waste” but in truth indistinguishable from products on sale a few feet away inside grocery stores—made them potent tools for puncturing the veil cast by the fetish of waste over the true functioning of modern capitalism. Mirroring the slogans of the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and 2000s—“enough already” or “the world is full” (Yates 2011)—freegans insisted on the wastefulness not just of how or what is produced under neo-liberal capitalism, but also, quite simply, how much.
Towards a new waste regime?
Just as freegans were only ever a small part of the community of people in New York making use of wasted goods, the anti-capitalist movements I describe here only capture a fraction of contemporary mobilizations against “waste.” In focusing on municipal waste, I have left out the industrial wastes that constitute the majority of the modern American waste stream (MacBride 2012) and the environmental justice movements that challenge them. The theory sketched above—like the discourse of the freegan group I studied itself—has important gaps, in that it leaves out the gendered and racialized elements of who and what is “waste” under neo-liberalism (see, e.g., Dillon 2014).
Making such connections is all the more urgent because there are increasing signs that the fissures in the neo-liberal waste regime, which have enabled groups like freegan.info and helped some of those left behind by neo-liberalism to survive, have begun to close. Over the course of my fieldwork, stores began locking, guarding, and destroying their garbage even as they insisted that they donated “all” of their food to charity. These incidents are far from isolated: instead, they mirror new initiatives to criminalize the recovery of ex-commodities (de Vries and Abrahamsson 2012), privatize municipal waste systems (particularly in the developing world), and re-commodify ex-commodities like food waste through waste-to-energy schemes (Krzywoszynska 2012).
As in previous epochs, anti-capitalist critiques of waste may serve as a motor behind the emergence of a new, post-neo-liberal waste regime. “Waste” will almost certainly remain part of social movements’ challenges to capitalism, but discard scholars must remain attentive to how the symbolic and material content of the term continues to change.
Alex V. Barnard is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. His book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in the United States examines how activists use food waste to challenge capitalism in New York City and is now available from the University of Minnesota Press. His doctoral dissertation examines how states and public policies shape how mentally disordered persons are classified in the United States and France.
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