Lowenharupt Tsing // The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
Anna Lowenharupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins is a story about matsutake mushroom economies and a parable about capitalism.
While I love the idea of looking at what grows in the ruins or cracks in the sidewalk (Lot Radio in Brooklyn comes to mind, wildflowers in West Oakland, street art), and there was a lot to like about this book, it read surprisingly optimistically to me.
Here are some of my favorite bits.
I think perhaps the most memorable point in the book, on the alignment of domestic labor with education:
Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm; commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world.
A brief side story in US / Japanese business competition about the conflict in the US between managers and shareholders:
The threat posed by Japan unleashed a U.S. revolution. Reverse Black Ships overturned the U.S. order of things, but through U.S. efforts. Empowered by public fears of U.S. decline, a small group of activist stockholders and business school professors, who might otherwise have never gained a hearing, were allowed to dismantle American corporations.19 The activists of the 1980s “shareholders’ revolution” reacted to what they saw as the erosion of U.S. power. To regain it, they aimed to take back corporations for their owners, the stockholders, rather than leaving them in the hands of professional managers. They began to buy up corporations to strip them of assets and resell them. By the 1990s, the movement had won; the radical chic of “leveraged buyouts” became the mainstream investment strategy of “mergers and acquisitions.” As corporations rid themselves of all but their most profitable sectors, most of what had once been inside those corporations was contracted to distant suppliers. Supply chains, and thus commitment to their distinctive form of salvage accumulation, took off as the dominant form of capitalism in the United States. This worked so well for investors that by the turn of the century, U.S. business leaders had forgotten that this shift was part of a struggle for position and had recast it as the leading edge of an evolutionary process. They were busy cramming the world into this process, and had, indeed, made headway in enforcing an American version in Japan.20
And Bretton Woods:
To understand how Japan’s threat had faded requires going back a bit — and allowing money to emerge as a protagonist of the story. In the 1980s and 1990s, lots of things shifted because of confrontations between the dollar and the yen.
In 1949, the yen was pegged to the U.S. dollar as part of the Bretton Woods agreements. As the Japanese economy flourished, in part through nonreciprocated exports to the United States, the U.S. balance of payments with Japan suffered.21 From the U.S. perspective, the yen was “undervalued,” making Japanese goods cheap in the United States and U.S. exports to Japan too dear there. U.S. anxieties about the yen were one small part of the situation in 1971 that led to the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard. In 1973, the yen was allowed to float. Then in 1979, the U.S. raised interest rates, attracting investment in the dollar and keeping its value high. Because the Japanese economy continued to export to the United States, the Japanese government bought and sold U.S. dollars to keep the price of the yen low. In the first half of the 1980s, capital flowed out of Japan, keeping the yen weak in relation to the dollar. By 1985, U.S. business leaders had panicked about this situation. In response, the U.S. engineered an international agreement, the Plaza Accord. The value of the dollar was lowered, and the yen rose. By 1988, the yen had doubled its value in relation to the dollar. Japanese consumers could buy almost everything abroad — including matsutake. National pride rose; this was the moment of The Japan That Can Say №22 However, the situation made it difficult for Japanese companies to export their goods, which now were priced too high.
Japanese companies responded by sending more production abroad. So did their suppliers in South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, also reeling from the change in currency values. Supply chains traveled everywhere. Here’s how two American sociologists describe the situation:
Faced with the sudden increase of the dollar value of their factor inputs, and eager to keep their prices low and thus maintain their contracts with American retailers, Asian businesses quickly began to diversify. Most of Taiwan’s light industries … moved to … mainland China, but also to Southeast Asia…. Large segments of Japanese export-oriented industries moved to Southeast Asia. In addition some firms, such as Toyota, Honda, and Sony, established portions of their business in North America. South Korean businesses also moved labor-intensive operations to Southeast Asia, as well as to other developing countries in Latin America and central Europe. In each place that they established their new businesses, low-price supplier networks began to form.23
The Japanese national economy went into shock — first with the “bubble economy” of inflated real estate and stock prices in the late 1980s, then the “lost decade” of recession in the 1990s, then the further financial crisis of 1997.24 But supply chains took off as never before: not just Japanese-sponsored chains but chains from all Japan’s supplier sites, which now had their own chains. Supply-chain capitalism became a presence around the world. But Japan was no longer in charge.
Contaminated diversity resists summing up:
[C]ontaminated diversity is complicated, often ugly, and humbling. Contaminated diversity implicates survivors in histories of greed, violence, and environmental destruction. The tangled landscape grown up from corporate logging reminds us of the irreplaceable graceful giants that came before. The survivors of war remind us of the bodies they climbed over — or shot — to get to us. We don’t know whether to love or hate these survivors. Simple moral judgments don’t come to hand.
Worse yet, contaminated diversity is recalcitrant to the kind of “summing up” that has become the hallmark of modern knowledge. Contaminated diversity is not only particular and historical, ever changing, but also relational. It has no self-contained units; its units are encounter-based collaborations. Without self-contained units, it is impossible to compute costs and benefits, or functionality, to any “one” involved. No self-contained individuals or groups assure their self-interests oblivious to the encounter. Without algorithms based on self-containment, scholars and policymakers might have to learn something about the cultural and natural histories at stake. That takes time, and too much time, perhaps, for those who dream of grasping the whole in an equation. But who put them in charge? If a rush of troubled stories is the best way to tell about contaminated diversity, then it’s time to make that rush part of our knowledge practices. Perhaps, like the war survivors themselves, we need to tell and tell until all our stories of death and near-death and gratuitous life are standing with us to face the challenges of the present. It is in listening to that cacophony of troubled stories that we might encounter our best hopes for precarious survival.
I’m not sure this book completely changed my mind about anything, but it is a good, short case study of late capitalism that I would recommend reading: The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.