Savage salvage

A Reading Note

One of the core principles in The Mushroom at the End of the World is something writer Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing refers to as “salvage capitalism”:

In the nineteenth century, when capitalism first became an object of inquiry, raw materials were imagined as an infinite bequest from Nature to Man. Raw materials can no longer be taken for granted. In our food procurement system, for example, capitalists exploit ecologies not only by reshaping them but also by taking advantage of their capacities. Even in industrial farms, farmers depend on life processes outside of their control, such as photosynthesis and animal digestion. In capitalist farms, living things made within ecological processes are coopted for concentration of wealth. This is what I shall call “salvage,” that is, taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control. Many capitalist raw materials (consider coal and oil) came into existence long before capitalism. Capitalists also cannot produce human life, the prerequisite of labor. “Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 62

Tsing is riffing on Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation, in which capitalists violently acquire resources and convert them into commodities. As an example, the modern day use of eminent domain to displace a community in order to make way for sports stadiums converts homes and public spaces into seats that can be sold at a (typically, hefty) price. Salvage accumulation differs in that it’s ongoing, “never complete,” in Tsing’s words. Each new generation of workers, each season’s sunlight, present continual opportunities for exploitation. Tsing continues:

Salvage accumulation through global supply chains is not new, and some well-known earlier examples can clarify how it works. Consider the nineteenth-century ivory supply chain connecting central Africa and Europe as told in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. The story turns around the narrator’s discovery that the European trader he much admired has turned to savagery to procure his ivory. The savagery is a surprise because everyone expects the European presence in Africa to be a force for civilization and progress. Instead, civilization and progress turn out to be cover-ups and translation mechanisms for getting access to value procured through violence: classic salvage.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 63

It’s interesting to think about the use of the word “salvage” in this context; the word means to rescue or to save. One “salvages” a sunken ship, for example. Likewise, the payment made for rescuing a ship’s cargo is referred to as “salvage.” But a ship’s cargo is already part of the capitalist system; salvaging it prevents it from being lost. While Kurtz’s ivory, and the natives he briefly subdues, begin outside capitalism and are unwillingly “salvaged” into its grip. Tsing further notes that

savage and salvage are often twins: salvage translates violence and pollution into profit.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 64

Another example concerns the matsutake mushrooms that Tsing takes as her primary object of research. Matsutake cannot be cultivated: they grow in very particular conditions, among disturbed forests (whether the disturbance is caused by humans, animals, or fire) and have a close relationship with pine trees that cannot be reproduced on a farm. They must be gathered, and while many of the gatherers that Tsing follows expect to sell the mushrooms, their primary motivations for hunting them are outside that financial aim: many pursue the mushroom as a way of escaping the ordinary capitalist labor market. Meanwhile, nearly all matsutake mushrooms ultimately end up in Japan, where they play an important social role as a symbol of family and community. Matsutake are also salvaged, but ever so briefly:

Matsutake is then a capitalist commodity that begins and ends in life as a gift. It spends only a few hours as a fully alienated commodity: the time when it waits as inventory in shipping crates on the tarmac and travels in the belly of a plane. But these are hours that count. Relations between exporters and importers, which dominate and structure the supply chain, are cemented within the possibility of these hours. As inventory, matsutake allow calculations that channel profits to exporters and importers, making the work of organizing the commodity chain worthwhile from their perspective. This is salvage accumulation: the creation of capitalist value from noncapitalist regimes.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 128

Since first encountering this term, I’ve started to see salvage everywhere, and not only in the dirt: a marketplace like Etsy salvages the culture and objects of craftwork in order to amass wealth for its investors. Platforms salvage the web for the same ends. Advertising salvages attention and identity. And just as Marlowe did, we may have to travel far up the river to understand exactly how that salvage works—and to know just how savage it can be.

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