State Violence, The Diamond/Water Paradox, and an Invisible Axiom of Classical Economics

The diamond/water paradox is a name given to the fact that water has infinitely high use value but only minimal exchange value whereas roughly the opposite is true for diamonds. Apparently economists have been trying to untangle this putative problem for centuries, but my thesis is that it’s actually no problem at all. It seems paradoxical only because these economists have completely ignored the role of state violence in creating value and maintaining capitalism. Without state violence there would be no capitalist economy for them to study and prices of things would be very different than they are now.1

People need water, food, and shelter to survive. For a million years of human history people found countless successful ways to meet these needs directly, for themselves, their families, their communities, without being violently forced by zillionaires to cede a share of the value they created. Fundamentally, capitalism is possible only because if you charge money for those needs and kill anyone who tries to meet them without paying you can force masses of people to labor for your benefit.2

Capitalists can’t have everything their own unchallenged way, though, even with the ability to call down unspeakable violence on their victims. People are brave, daring, capable, creative, and willing to do almost anything to keep their communities, their families, and themselves alive not just for one more day, but sustainably, convivially. They won’t quietly let their own children starve physically or even spiritually just because a capitalist has all the food and will kill anyone who doesn’t buy it. At some point the risk of rebellion no longer outweighs the risk of starvation. The history of capitalism can easily be seen as a series of stabilizing responses to new forms of resistance by its victims.

For instance, one of American chattel slavery’s fatal flaws from capital’s point of view, a flaw which certainly contributed greatly to its downfall, is how unbearably, blatantly evil it was. It was so horrific that the horror could not be made invisible even in a time of painfully slow, imperfect communication. The horrors of slavery were obvious to everyone in contact with it, whether they approved of it or not, whether they wanted to cover up the pain to preserve the slave empire or to end it by abolishing slavery. Abolition in England stabilized capitalism by placating everyone horrified by slavery while the physical isolation of enslaved people in the new world kept them invisible at home so the money kept flowing in.

Now imagine a time when people have been accustomed to gathering food for themselves in the woods, or keeping a cow and some chickens in the yard, or growing fruit or nut trees. This was the United States a hundred years ago, by the way.3 In this context outlawing some of those activities or even just introducing legally enforceable permitting requirements and thereby raising the opportunity cost will stochastically increase the size of the cash economy.4 Stochastic voter suppression is well-understood, but stochastic commoning suppression not so much.5

Just by making it more difficult for people to feed themselves directly by their labor discourages some of them and increases participation in the cash economy. It’s not necessary to rely on direct effects since the statistics are reliable enough.6 By using the law to enforce these rules the door to state violence is opened. Violence is the only means of enforcing the law. But capitalists coudn’t just announce one day that from now on they were going to kill anyone who won’t work in exchange for money to buy food, water, and shelter. The risk of rebellion is too high. The victims of capitalism have had to be trained into their roles, and the training continues.

It’s only possible to move survival needs into the cash economy a little bit at a time, allowing the effects of the transitions to accumulate stochastically rather than in a directly causal way all at once. Each little step of cashifying needs allows the victims’ responses to be tested and policies walked back a little if they’re too destabilizing. This kind of tentativity in the process is itself evolutionarily adaptive. So in the 17th century they could enclose the commons and exploit some labor that way. There was resistance and negotiation and finally a tentative resolution, which allowed capitalists to move on to the next stage of enclosure.

They introduced permit requirements and zoning restrictions for chickens and cows and made the forests into parks with fences and rules so people were increasingly likely to have to buy food instead of creating it, and therefore more likely to work for money, allowing zillionaires to skim their share, rather than directly for subsistence, which would allow them to keep all of the value of their work. This problem isn’t completely solved, either. Just for instance, people still insist on giving food to hungry people so experiments in government technology continue. But water is a still-unsolved enclosure problem for capitalists, maybe because it’s the most immediate of the three needs so its denial is most likely to provoke immediate violent resistance.

Water, at least for drinking, is still mostly free, but significant steps towards enclosure have been taken, with bottled water and other commercial soft drinks, propaganda against drinking wild water, and similar tactics. Capital has not yet finished creating a class of water buyers trained into docility sufficient to support a purely capitalist water market, but they have made some progress. As soon as they evolve their control technologies sufficiently we can expect the price of water to rise indefinitely, but not because of its use value. Without the potential for ultraviolence water would remain essentially free. Imagine if their control tech improves to the point where they can charge for air — maybe this is why they’re so interested in colonizing Mars. Exchange values are determined entirely by the state of government technology at a given time.

And there is nothing special about water in this regard.7 State violence can be used to set the exchange value of anything that has value. State violence keeps the price of diamonds high, not just through the legal mechanisms necessary to enforce a world-wide monopoly, but also because without police violence to supply and control a workforce there’d be no diamonds to monopolize. No one becomes a diamond miner other than through coercion.

If police are abolished expect the exchange value of diamonds to correlate more strongly to their actual use value, which is not nothing but is also not high. The resolution of the so-called paradox lies in the fact that water is cheap only because methods to force people to accept expensive water don’t yet exist. It only seems like a paradox to professional economists who also rely on ultraviolence to retain their privilege, a fact which apparently creates a significant blind spot.

  1. All of which is in itself probably enough of an explanation for the fact that they’re not talking about it.
  2. I stated it in an extreme manner for effect, but it’s not wrong. They might not kill everyone who meets their own needs outside of the capitalist framework, but they kill enough of them so that everyone who wants to avoid exploitation has to consider the risk. Stochastic state terrorism is state terrorism.
  3. The World Is More Than Human is a really nice history of this process in Seattle, whose case roughly parallels that of other similar cities.
  4. I use the term stochastic here because these kind of legal interventions don’t guarantee that the activities will stop so that everyone who previously engaged in them has to move to the cash economy. Instead a few people find it sufficiently more difficult to make them stop, not everyone. These interventions rely on statistics to function rather than deterministic effects. This is one reason it’s so hard for us, the victims, to see what’s going on.
  5. For myself, I think at least part of the difficulty of understanding stochastic suppression of commoning is due to two factors. First, the fact that change is very slow and hard to see because people take the world they’re born to for granted, as the natural way for things to be. That world seems like the starting point, so that each little tweak, each little obstacle in the way of people directly meeting their own needs, seems like only a minor change, not consequential, just as any given individual step towards speciation doesn’t create a new species. After a tweak the world seems the same. After 20 years of tweaks things look very different, and after a hundred years no one who remembers is left alive. After five centuries of capitalism the world is unrecognizable. The second reason its hard to spot is that the most natural explanation, the one people leap to first, is obviously wrong. There’s no directed conspiracy making the world progressively more exploitable by capitalists. They don’t get together at Davos or a Trilateral Commission meeting and plan out the next decade’s worth of increasing oppression. Instead, like animal breeding, each individual zillionaire, whose capitalist enterprise has called a new need into being and who has the individual power to wield government to meet that need, will do so in a way that allows his work to continue. This creates a tool, a new little element of government technology, which then opens up a new vista, a new land, for capital exploitation. It’s like how dog breeders didn’t have to plan together over decades, centuries, or millenia, and yet we somehow still have useful and wonderful dogs. Zillionaires create the conditions in which capitalism thrives by the same mechanism, which is artificial but not socially directed selection.
  6. I’m not claiming that this is the only benefit capital reaps from making it progressively harder for people to work for subsistence rather than for money. Just for instance such laws also provide victims to the prison industrial complex, fodder for cop violence work, and all kinds of other things. But one of them is that people become more likely to work for money rather than direct subsistence.
  7. Other than the fact that it’s the most immediate human need of all besides air and is therefore a very thorny unsolved problem in government technology.

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