The Interconnectedness of Global Capitalism

ANNA LOWENHAUPT TSING. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. 352. $29.95. Hardback. ISBN: 9780691162751.

The reading for this week is about the relationships between human and non-human species in the context of global capitalism. The work under review is Mushroom at the End of the World. It is the third book written by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Mushroom is two things at once—one of them particular and one broad. First, Mushroom is an ethnographic analysis of the matsutake mushroom trade and its global supply chain. Second, it is a meditation on the nature of global capitalism, with a suggestion for a new ethics of capitalism that breaks from what Tsing describes as the lingering assumptions of the Enlightenment era. This new ethics of capitalism is based on a recognition of the interconnectedness of the world’s species. It is based on an acceptance of vulnerability, and a recognition of the “collaborative survival” of various “assemblages” that thrive amidst the “capitalist damage” of the postwar age. Overall, Tsing’s portrayal of our “entangled ways of life” is creative and inspiring, yet it rests on a strawman: an oversimplified depiction of Enlightenment capitalism as Man conquering Nature through “expectations of progress aimed toward collective advancement.”[1]

Tsing has grounded her meditation on capitalism in the history of a very specific commodity— the matsutake mushroom—which she believes presents an apt metaphor. These mushrooms are spicy-spelling, white-and-brown, and they only grow in forested regions of the northern hemisphere, particularly in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, southwestern China, Japan, and Finland. The mushrooms are highly sought after in Japan, where they are used for a wide range of social practices and attached to cultural values. For example, they are given as gifts in marriages and other cultural ceremonies. In fact, the wild fungi are so in-demand that they fetch outstanding prices on the Japanese market and their distribution is “strictly regulated.” Some Japanese citizens even dream about being able to eat matsutake mushrooms as though they were just food.[2]

In Mushroom, Tsing explores the very complex supply chain that exists between mushroom foragers in such places as the eastern Cascades Mountains of Oregon and the wholesalers, distributors, and auctioneers who sell the product in developed cities like Tokyo, Japan. The mushroom’s global traffic demonstrates the connectedness of capitalistic relationships, as well as the ability for capitalism to function without the “crippling assumption” of regimented time, an assumption that Tsing believes is a holdover from antiquated Enlightenment thought. In other words, Tsing argues that it is possible to amass “wealth without rationalizing labor and raw materials.”[3]

The matsutake mushroom provides the ideal metaphor for Tsing’s new ethos of capitalism. The fungi is wild, impossible to cultivate, and grows in “damaged,” “impoverished,” and “human-disturbed” landscapes like in the atomic-fallout of Hiroshima and cutover-forests of Oregon. Tsing takes global ruination as her driving metaphor, and she has picked an organism that not only grows out of ruins but seems to depend upon them. Humans, as Tsing writes, “are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination.” But studying the matsutake mushroom gives us hope for adapting to this modern destruction. “The uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift,” according to Tsing, “when the controlled world we thought we had fails.”[4]

The matsutake mushroom and its global supply chain demonstrate what Tsing describes as “precarity,” the seemingly unstable or unpredictable nature of relationships in the global era and a “condition of being vulnerable to others.” Tsing believes that precarity should be embraced rather than feared. There exist too many one-dimensional narratives of progress and ruin, Tsing contends, such as those that pit job-creation in the logging industry against environmental conservation. In this way, the matsutake mushroom also proves symbolic. Mushroom foragers are an extraordinarily diverse group of people, including white disabled veterans, Asian refugees or various ethnicities, Native Americans, and undocumented Latinos. Their foraging enmeshing them in global capitalism while also allowing them to escape the trappings typically associated with the phenomenon. Pickers “navigate a freedom of the forest” that stands in direct contrast to the 9 to 5 workweek.[5]

The global trade in matsutake mushrooms connects people all over the world. The motley collection of foragers in the Pacific Northwest are connected to nature guides in Finland, agricultural workers and herders in China’s Yunnan Province, and merchants and cooks in Japan. But the connections between non-human species are just as important to Tsing. Matsutake connects seeds, trees, soils, roundworms called nematodes, mammals, micro-organisms, and various other species. Throughout Mushroom, Tsing demonstrates how the interconnected processes of the forest, where the mushroom grows, are comparable to the interconnected processes of global capitalism. “If you cover a tree in a forest, depriving its leaves of light and thus food,” she writes, “its mycorrhizal associates [mushrooms] may feed it from the carbohydrates of other trees.” These are “the unpredictable encounters at the centers of things,” both human and non-human. This example also epitomizes Tsing’s penetrating optimism about global capitalism in the age that geologists have begun to call the Anthropocene. Even if our metaphorical leaves are covered up by the disasters of climate change, for example, Tsing is hopeful that many species will manage to live “despite capitalism.”[6]

To Tsing, “Neither the fungus nor the plant can flourish without the activity of the other.” This same statement can be made for the human actors in her story. Neither the Japanese capitalists nor the “off-the-grid” matsutake pickers can exist without one another. Rather than existing as two opposing groups of characters, these people are woven together as parts into the same assemblage. In this way, Mushroom boldly embraces a pluralistic humanity. The book might be called a defense of a post-modern version of capitalism. It could be called a critique of traditional ideas of capitalism, and an attempt to rescue capitalism from its bad reputation at the same time.[7]

Nonetheless, Mushroom has some notable flaws in logic. Tsing says that she wants to imagine the possibilities of global capitalism “without assuming progress,” because she believes that is where the Enlightenment thinkers went wrong. However, Tsing is not a scholar of the Enlightenment, and her portrayal of that form of capitalism as a “unified progress-time [that] we still long to obey” is drastically over simplified. Yes, enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith believed in a “natural progress of things toward improvement,” but they also accepted the idea of precarity. In fact, they believed that capitalism was the only system which would account for all of the unknown elements of human behavior without giving up on an individual’s inherent drive for personal security. As Smith acknowledged, free capital could exist “in spite both of the extravagance of government, and of the greatest errors of administration.” Yet Tsing seems to believe that her understanding of precarity would be strange to the Enlightenment thinkers. More than likely, these thinkers would have understood the idea quite well. Similarly, as the reviewer Jedidiah Purdy notes, economic theorists like Friedrich Hayek have long celebrated free-market and laissez faire capitalism as an organic collection of inter-related assemblages. Such theorists have longed believed that these assemblages defied any attempt at logical regulation. In fact, this argument it the basis of conservative apologies of private enterprise and limited government. Unfortunately, Tsing does not engage closely with the political and economic traditions that she is seeking to critique.[8]

Last, Tsing makes two potentially dangerous assumptions in Mushroom. Both of them have been pointed out in Purdy’s review in New Republic, so I will not belabor them. First, Tsing writes that “Precarious living is always an adventure,” but this belief is not likely to be shared by many who have experienced hardship. I do not think the Native Americans Tsing talks about in Oregon—those with poverty levels three times that of the poorest non-native county—would speak so positively about precarity. I do not think that Americans who lost their mortgage after the 2008 financial crisis would either. All in all, it just sounds disingenuous for a tenured professor in the American University system—a person who likely has a great deal of security—to advocate for precarity, especially while many of her subjects have no wages, benefits, health insurance, or guaranteed income, and they can be arrested or kicked off the land where they pick mushrooms at any moment. The tone of Mushroom is so celebratory that it can be difficult to see the world Tsing is suggesting we accept. This is a world where we embrace the ruins of nature and the hopelessness of our efforts to improve upon it. And that is her second dangerous assumption: that nature has already been destroyed by capitalism and we must learn to see the potential for life in its ruins. Hopefully, readers will believe that this cannot be further from the truth. That the battle for our planet is not a lost cause we should come to terms with, but a fight that is only just beginning.[9]

Notes: 

[1] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), viii, 19, 23, 110, 134.

[2] Ibid. 111.

[3] Ibid. 123.

[4] Ibid. 2, 18-19, 40, 63, 50 160.

[5] Ibid. 20, 86.

[6] Ibid. viii, 20, 139, 157.

[7] Ibid. 5, 33, 138.

[8] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Raleigh, NC: Hayes Barton Press, 1965), 231. Originally published in 1776. Jedidiah Purdy, “The Mushroom that Explains the World: An Anthropologist Tries to Understand Capitalism by Studying a Japanese Delicacy,” New Republic, 8 October 2015. Accessed 3 March 2016: https://newrepublic.com/article/123059/foraging-meaning. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 34.

[9] Ibid. 4, 199.