In her essay published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, “Why Time Is Out of Joint: Marx’s Political Economy without the Subject,” Teresa Brennan argues that Marx did not apply his analysis of Capital and the labour that constitutes it closely enough. In particular, Marx only sees human labour-power as capable of producing surplus value. She invokes Marx’s own contrast of variable capital and constant capital. Only living labour-power falls into the former category by Marx’s original analysis, while natural resources and technology fall into the latter category: “We can even say that variable capital is the source of surplus-value while constant capital is not” (on page 268, for those of you fortunate enough to have access to the article). Human labour-power is the only source of energy in Marx’s view, while everything else is merely a conduit for it.
Brennan does not agree with this, and argues that “all natural sources of energy [i.e. substances that can be converted into energy] entering production should be treated as variable capital and sources of surplus-value” (268). She gets this by extending Marx’s explanation of labour power as energy transfered to a person by means of nourishment. It relies on a basic law of thermodynamics called the law of conservation of energy. Energy is coming from not just humans, but the non-living means of production themselves, in the form of various kinds of fuel– be it bread or oil.
Later she argues that by extending the ability to materialize energy, in the sense that Marx formerly only saw human labour-power as capable of, to agricultural production Capitalism comes up against an old barrier. There is no special name for that barrier, but it is scaled by the development of technology. What formerly required lots of human labour-power to accomplish could now be done with less energy and maintenance costs, as a piece of machinery only costs what is needed to do its specific task. In other words, to use the contrast between living and dead labour Brennan also employs on the same page, Capitalism maximizes its short-term profits by converting living energy (natural resources) into dead(er) commodities, which last longer for the sake of finding a buyer. This bodes well for short-term profits, but leaves less energy to be sown back into the system necessary for sustaining the living energy of humans, plants and animals– and ultimately Capital. Herein lies the “out of joint”-ness of time, because the reproduction of living energy is thrown out of whack as the pace of producing itself outstrips that reproduction.
Brennan admits that with agricultural production this was a more difficult barrier to scale, as plant and animal life is wont to stick to its inherited patterns and natures–unless one considers selective breeding, and invasion of life by genetic technologies. A more common, though I think quintessential, example of this murderous process is diary products, though particularly milk, in the United States. Arguably, that could be extended to food in general too.
Milk, before it is pasteurized, is in a certain sense alive; or at least it is biologically rich. It has enzymes and bacteria that are essential to the nutritive function it serves for those who drink it. In this way milk is potentially dangerous, though not unacceptably so, evidenced by the millenia of world-wide dairy consumption that obviously hasn’t wiped us out yet. Despite that we have pasteurization, effectively a process of killing the milk by boiling it.
Ordinarily, milk will last a day or two before it starts to go bad. This is not so good for the business man who may not have the regular business to consume the milk quick enough. So, on top of serving an ostensible technomedical imperative, pasteurizing milk makes it more portable—it will last longer. The process has become so effective at killing the milk that through a process of ultra-pasteurization, which involves intensely pressure-boiling the milk at temperatures exceeding the normal boiling point, refrigeration is on the verge of being practically unnecessary.
This is a serious boon to the milk-industry, because it allows them to centralize and maximize their production while not running the same (economic) risk of the milk spoiling because of the added time to distribute it. What is lost, however, is what is most essential to the milk: its nutritive value. It is no surprise that the sale of raw milk in the United States has been made illegal: more than constituting a public health-threat, raw-milk in all of its perfectly healthy character as a living source of human energy points directly to the violent economic interest involved. By violent, I mean the at once physical killing of the milk and the direct link this process has to the abstraction of its use-value as it becomes more exchangeable, or rather, by becoming more portable. This has a way of constituting a form of social violence against humans too, in that what is being killed for reasons that go beyond the medical is a staple part of our diet—and you know what they say, “you are what you eat.”