Many Venezuelans think that fracking — the dangerous extraction of oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing of sedimentary rocks — is a conspiracy on the part of the United States to drive them into ruin. That is not the case, but it is an understandable error, in part because of the US’s long history of real political conspiracies against Latin America. Another contributing factor, however, is that capitalism — especially in its globalized form — is just plain hard to understand.
Indeed, it is hard to understand why a rich country like the United States would set about destroying its landscape and itself, as if a gluttonous person (an extreme miser) were to dine on his own arm, indifferent to the question of what the long- or even short-term consequences might be (blood loss, armlessness, death?). That is fracking in a nutshell.
Fracking of course is good for something: it lowers the price of petroleum; the US gains in energy independence; it boosts consumption and so has helped hoist the country momentarily out of its crisis. This latest technique for oil and gas extraction is certainly creative and inventive, as capitalism (especially in its Yankee version) has proven to be from the beginning. That should make everyone feel very patriotic.
Or should it? What is a country? What should one care for in it? José Martí wrote from New York that a country or “patria” was that part of humanity that one sees most closely (indicating also one’s responsibility to all of humanity). In Howard Zinn’s play about Emma Goldman, the anarchist affirms her patriotism saying she is willing to die for “the mountains and the rivers, the land, the people, yes, the country.” Woody Guthrie’s song that we all know (but not all the stanzas!) goes “This land is your land. . .” and refers to golden valleys and diamond deserts.
That is the view from left field. Looking now to right (some would say center) field we have Bill Clinton affirming, not too long ago, America is an idea. To many of us, bathed in postmodernism at the time, this sounded very good: anti-essentialist, open-ended, etc. But now we can see the problem. The country is also its diverse people(s), land, cultures, future . . . the more concrete stuff the left believes in. Understood properly, however, Clinton’s words were quite correct: the US is well on its way to becoming a dangerously abstract idea, and that idea is profit.
To say that a country is an idea or an abstraction should sound both familiar and strange. But then capitalism is an uncanny, abstract, and barely intelligible world of shadows and doubles. This theme is amply treated in literature from the 19th century forward. Think of its many automatons, Jekylls and Hydes, doppelgangers, and secret sharers which are all imaginary representations of the double existence of things in our modern society. Just as a commodity is a useful thing but is also doubled into value-form (price), so a nation is a group of people, lands, and habits but is also their duplication in the form of an alienated State.
Sometimes these two facets of entities in capitalism can exist in relative accord and operate with relative functionality. Sometimes, however, their contradiction becomes all too apparent. As far as the last three decades are concerned and taking into account the vicissitudes of the human being and nature at a time when the hegemonic State destroys several others and now destroys itself for profit, one has ample reason to believe that the shadowy forms that capitalism imposes on people and lands might be less like the invisible hands of guardian angels and more like icy diabolic claws that pull them down to the grave.
A well-known poet in a very difficult poem has the alienated “son of man” unable to say or know anything about “the branches that grow” or the “roots that clutch” because he knows only a “heap of broken images.” If “broken images” can refer to abstractions such as prices and profit, and “branches” and “roots” are allowed to stand for nature, then we have a good picture of why there is fracking. The poet, it will be remembered, is T. S. Eliot, and the poem is called “The Waste Land.”
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.