Aporias of free trade

The nature of biodiversity

RP 151 () / Article

Primitive accumulation is not produced just once at the dawn of capitalism, but is continually reproducing itself.

Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus 1

In a climate rife with threats of species extinction, we propose a genealogy of the discourse of the late twentieth century in which the meaning of the natural substrate, recoded as ‘biodiversity’, is called into question. It is a question posed – and apparently answered – in the peculiar zone between capital and sovereignty, the quasi-zone of the International Treaty. While the authority of the accrediting institutions, along with the uptake and erasure of treaty as document (from the UN to GATT to the WTO), remain in dispute, the event of disputation has been suspended. The meaning of the suspension – the protest of a refusal to agree, to come to terms – is itself in a kind of suspension, a stand-off in which all sides, and there are more than just two, stand in waiting, perhaps for the redefinition of the court, perhaps for the catastrophe to come, the disaster that would decide the case by shattering its stage, the mise en scène that signs, or refuses to sign, in the name of a common humanity, the utopian fiction of a shared and justifiable future.

We have followed Deleuze and Guattari back to the category of originary accumulation. Like Marx, they read this category ironically, drawing on two simultaneous yet contradictory meanings. One of capitalism’s founding fictions (‘It appears as “primitive” because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital’ (Marx, Capital 1, 875) is produced neither once nor for all. Not once at the beginning nor as a fixed and finalized event thereafter, the occasion of originary accumulation is as ongoing as the reterritorializations of capital accumulation itself. This sustaining fiction continues to underwrite narratives of uneven development, where the telos of development is always assumed if nowhere present, while at the same time the mythic origin (‘prehistory’) of capital has been displaced by a writing of capitalism that remains inseparable from the history of the post-colonial.

Within this history, the place of originary accumulation – as supplement to capitalism – is increasingly taken over by the trade in pre-history as tradition, indigeneity and the localization of nature. Within a universal logic of capital expansion, resistance to the world of world trade becomes the residue of a precapitalist past, the trace of tradition – and traditional knowledge in particular – produced by the present as its own standing exception. The repackaging of tradition for and against free trade is an inescapable effect of the abstraction of nature, locality and knowledge within the hegemony of globalization.

In the founding modes of authorization which hope to expand democracy beyond borders, what becomes of the unequally incurred debts/relations to credit also signed into law, especially in ‘the ambiguous zone between judicial order and life?’2 Another way of putting the question is to ask, how does life figure new kinds of credit in the given? We are concerned specifically with the continuing figuration of nature as the prehistory of capitalism, as that which can be re­distributed as a means of reparation and justice in international initiatives for preservation and ad­judication, even as the historical production of nature continues to be eclipsed in problematic ways. If one of the things that the ‘world’ hopes to profit from is the borrowing on the ‘given’, assumed crédit, of a transnational idiom of value, then it must somehow secure the seamless flow of meaning, as well as of capital, between nations, cultures, peoples, languages, idioms, public and private spaces, and indeed borders of all kinds (those with and without formally recognized titles). It is this oblique, yet nonetheless historically and forcibly forged, relationship between the trans-nationalization of capital and the translation of idioms of value we explore. At a moment when the New York Times business section reports the supposed imminent obsolescence of the three great post-World War II institutions of universal calculation, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, it may be an opportune moment to revisit the inauguration of the last of these and reflect on the attempts that have been made to amend it.3