What Can Mushrooms Tell Us About the End of Capitalism?

An anthropologist ties together mushrooms, salvage accumulation, and the end of capitalism’s progress narrative.

What can mushrooms tell us about the end of capitalism?

A lot, according to anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The celebrated and iconoclastic thinker emerges from her recent years of research in the mushroom-laced forests of Asia and America with a treatise on the role of mushrooms in global neoliberalism and what they might tell us about life in ‘capitalist ruins’.

The matsutake mushroom is a wild forest mushroom that is highly sought after and foraged throughout the northern hemisphere, from the United States to Finland to Japan (a country where it’s associated with particular value and prestige). Tsing’s treatise is one of a number of works that are now emerging from the multi-year, multidisciplinary international research effort known as the Matsutake Worlds Research Group. This international team of researchers, according to its website, “documents the rich variety of cultural and ecological lifeways emerging across matsutake’s path. We study matsutake picking and the matsutake commodity chain, showing how diverse cultures and ecologies engage each other in the matsutake trade. We are interested in matsutake cultures and ecologies as multispecies worlds where life continues in the midst of great disturbances.”

The matsutake is of interest to these researchers because of the particular value and prestige associated with it in countries like Japan, because of the complicated international commodity exchange networks and local foraging practices involved in its acquisition, and because it has proven particularly resistant to commercial cultivation, thereby offering a uniquely useful example of the intersection of non-human species and lifeways with contemporary global capitalism. What can the development of matsutake as a commodity and value-object tell us about contemporary capitalism?

Out of this research, Tsing has fashioned a speculative and thought-provoking position on contemporary society. She moves away from standard analyses of neoliberal capitalism to argue the contemporary socio-economic state of things is comprised of messy “assemblages”. The term is neither new nor her own; it’s been adopted as a recent vogue term among thinkers seeking to push the bounds of post-post-post-modernity. Appropriating the concept from ecological and biological sciences, social thinkers use it to get around the restrictiveness of positivist theory. Instead of concrete notions like ‘community’, ‘capitalism’, or other normative concepts, “assemblages are open-ended gatherings”: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, in constantly shifting formations. They are things that happen or elements that gather together, not necessarily abiding by clearly discernible or analyzable rules. “The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other – if at all – is never settled… patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather.”

If this sounds like an easy way to escape the difficult task of analyzing capitalism’s complex shifts and predicting its trajectories, it probably is. But to Tsing’s credit, it does offer something more: a critique of linear progress. The notion of a rule-bounded analysis of capitalism (or neoliberalism, or power, or any socio-political concept) echoes the narrative of colonial capitalism itself: that shifts and changes occur according to discernible patterns that lead toward natural and inevitable outcomes. Assemblages suggest something different: that patterns and outcomes are unpredictable and uncontrollable, as are the attempts to apply theory to them.

What we can do is observe what and how things happen – like mushroom foragers learning the ways of the forest – even if the why and wherefore eludes us. In a world where the progress narrative of capitalism now lies in ruins, suggests Tsing, the messy assemblages of mushroom foraging might help indicate a new and different way for individuals and societies to engage with that broad assemblage that is our modern world. Perhaps if we stop trying to understand and control it, then through reflective observation we can learn to live in and with it.

Tsing’s study of matsutake mushrooms offers a complex bit of thinking for the reader seeking a new way of understanding the ravages of neoliberal capitalism in today’s world. However, it ought to be taken with a sober grain of salt (Tsing, ever the experimental anthropologist, goes on at some length about the importance of smell and taste in field observation, but doesn’t mention what impact a grain of salt has on the matsutake mushrooms: metaphorically revealing, perhaps). It can be dangerous to try to depict a world outside of capitalism, particularly on the flimsy framework of a transnational mushroom trade that is of only minor significance in the global scheme of things.

In trying to complicate our understanding of capitalism, Tsing has been pushing the concept of ‘salvage accumulation’. Theories of capitalism usually start out with the premise of capitalists accumulating raw materials and resources, which they eventually convert into wealth. But Tsing notes that many of those things are themselves produced through processes that exist outside of capitalism, and which capitalists (and humans generally) can neither control nor (re)produce.

In an article published earlier this year explaining the notion, she said such things include for example the processes by which animals decompose into oil; by which plants photosynthesize; by which animals digest; by which humans reproduce and learn and think. “Accumulation is the amassment of wealth under capitalism; salvage here refers to the conversion of stuff with other histories of social relations (human and not human) into capitalist wealth.” (“Salvage Accumulation, or the Structural Effects of Capitalist Generativity“, Cultural Anthropology)

Or, as she explains in The Mushroom at the End of the World, “In capitalist farms, living things made within ecological processes are coopted for the concentration of wealth. This is what I 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.”

Why is the distinction important? Because, suggests Tsing, it helps us to understand the creative, diverse and generative aspects of capitalism: “It is in such emergences that the genius of capitalism appears as both spectacular creativity and as the mundanely repetitive restructuring of wealth.”

All that is well and good, but there is a risk here: romanticizing the putative diversity and creativity of capitalism. The opener to Tsing’s article hints at its bias: “How is it that capitalism is at once so generative, flexible, and creative, and, simultaneously, so effective at doing certain things, such as making rich people richer?”

Are the objects of this ‘salvage accumulation’ – mushrooms, cows, women’s sewing skills — really produced without capitalist control? Some would disagree. Can something that is produced by, and of, and around and amid capitalism really be considered that profoundly distinct from capitalist control, as the notion suggests? Tsing is writing against a strain of scholarship that strives to reveal these types of marginal livelihoods and economic practices as part of capitalism’s insidious and ever-shifting tendrils; one which sees even natural processes as indelibly shaped and controlled by human processes and particularly by capitalism. She offers a valiant counter-position, to be sure. Yet it’s not entirely convincing, and risks relabeling the worst excesses of capitalism as examples of economic diversity.

Take these reflections on her cellphone, inside which “you find coltan dug by African miners, some of them children, who scramble into dark holes without thought of wages or benefits. No companies send them; they are doing this dangerous work because of civil war, displacement, and loss of other livelihoods, owing to environmental degradation. Their work is hardly what experts imagine as capitalist labor… Salvage accumulation, with its apparatus of translation, converts the ores they dig into assets legible to capitalist business.”

Yes, but what is this really trying to say about capitalism? That capitalist slave labour is a form of creative economic diversity?

“Thinking through salvage rhythms changes our vision. Industrial work no longer charts the future. Livelihoods are various, cobbled together, and often temporary. People come to them for diverse reasons, and only rarely because they offer the stable wages-and-benefits packages of twentieth-century dreams.”

Livelihoods are various and cobbled together out of desperation, and people’s “com[ing] to them for diverse reasons” suggests an agency that many labour scholars and activists would challenge. The collapse of the 20th century’s standard employment relationship has been well documented by labour scholars, and its blame laid squarely at the gates of neoliberal capitalist control.

If Tsing’s point is to say that we must take account of these “salvage rhythms” in our analysis of capitalism, then it’s a point well taken. If it is to suggest that capitalist processes are not as universally and tenaciously rooted in our natural and social worlds as we might think, then that is a dangerously misleading road to travel, and risks fetishizing precarity and capitalism alike.

Anthropologists have always faced the lure of exoticizing their subjects of study, and in an era where anthropology is no longer centred in the exploration of distant jungles and remote islands, today’s subject of exoticization and othering often takes the form of the economic subject; the desire to seek out unknown and exotic tribes hiding out in the leafy jungles of global neoliberal capital. The critique of exoticizing the other is just as relevant in today’s world of political economy as in the sociological jungles and wilds of yesteryear.

On the other hand, Tsing’s work is important and useful in revealing the patchwork and non-conforming behaviour of economies and livelihoods. “Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is ‘representative,’ no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism.”

It’s an important point, and one to which Tsing returns later in the book, in arguing that these diverse assemblages comprise a “latent commons, that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions – and not just for humans.”

Ethnographically Rich, Politically Wanting

This is an important and useful book, for political economists and anthropologists alike. But Tsing’s work is characterized by two notable strengths and two notable weaknesses.

Her greatest strength, as an anthropologist, has always been her rich ethnographic method. As an ethnography the book is first-rate. Tsing’s ability to befriend a broad swath of characters – from immigrant mushroom foragers in the mountains of the US to Japanese scientists – helps to demonstrate the varied human lifeways entwined with that of the mushroom. Her depiction of journeys through the forest with mushroom foragers; of the bidding and trading wars in foraging encampments; of the battles between mushroom scientists; of the travails of former Southeast Asian guerrillas and US military veterans alike now continuing their nomadic lifestyles in the US forests all offer rich and powerful ethnographic data. She even contributes some autoethnography, reflecting on her own family’s history of migration and her experience of growing up in the US.

A second strength of her work lies in the nonstandard and experimental ethnographic methods she employs. These have been more evident in previous works – her superb 2005 study Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, for example– but they’re in evidence here as well. I’m not referring to the odd sketches she intersperses throughout the book (the purpose of these is unclear, but probably intended to build on the more successful experimental formatting and presentation of Friction), but rather to her unapologetic reliance on interspersing informant stories, personal reflections, a strong attention to the importance of the non-human (animals, plants, ecosystems) in shaping human social relations, and a reliance on non-traditional observation tools such as smell and taste to complement what she sees and hears. Her method might be jarring to someone expecting traditional scientific method, but it allows for a thought-provoking and conceptually rich alternative.

“To listen and to tell a rush of stories is a method,” she writes. “And why not make the strong claim and call it a science, an addition to knowledge? Its research object is contaminated diversity; its unit of analysis is the indeterminate encounter. To learn anything we must revitalize arts of noticing and include ethnography and natural history.”

“Things that seem small often turn out to be big… This is not just a story, then, but also a method: big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details.”

Beautifully said. While Tsing’s ethnography is strong, her attempt to bridge ethnography with political economy, however, is less successful. It’s unclear what is precisely new or innovative about the application of ‘salvage accumulation’ in this context. And it’s coupled with a tendency to romanticize her subjects of study – pickers, precarity and capitalism alike. These weaknesses exacerbate each other. For example, what’s described as “the cultural practices of freedom” of independence-seeking mushroom foragers often sounds like little more than macho rhetoric and performative masculinity. Certainly, there are many people in contemporary North America who seek to minimize their reliance on the capitalist system: homesteaders, streetpunks, and yes, matsutake foragers. Is this an ethnography of a marginal group of foragers, or an analysis of global capitalism? Perhaps the aim here is to demonstrate the links between the two, but this could be demonstrated more strongly.

The political economy analysis is fragile and frustrating; but again the ethnographic description is first-rate:

“Pickers’ war experiences motivate them to come back year after year to extend their living survival. White vets enact traua; Khmer heal war wounds; Hmong remember fighting landscapes; Lao push the envelope. Each of these historical currents mobilizes the practice of picking mushrooms as the practice of freedom… despite the diverse histories and agendas of participants, what holds them together is the spirit they call freedom.”

Yet there’s a distinct romanticization going on, which extends from “the spirit they call freedom” to the spirit we call capitalism. Here’s the dilemma: what to do with a stirring, eloquent ethnography that interprets the savage impact of neoliberal capitalism and precarious livelihoods as a demonstration of diversity and creativity? Couldn’t it be more likely that this group of ‘freedom-practicing’ mushroom foragers who have to drive into the remote woods to practice their freedom is merely the exception that proves the rule (of how difficult it actually is to practice freedom in today’s world)?

“Critics who stress the uniformity of capitalism’s hold on the world want to overcome it through a singular solidarity. But what blinders this hope requires! Why not instead admit to economic diversity?… To understand capitalism (and not just its alternatives), then, we can’t stay inside the logics of capitalists; we need an ethnographic eye to see the economic diversity through which accumulation is possible.”

Tsing-the-ethnographer here is quite right: ethnography offers a vital lens to what’s happening in our world, and one that is all too rarely applied to capitalism and the forces of political economy. When that lens sees diversity and generative power in a system that produces precariousness and poverty, however, it’s difficult to appreciate the message this ethnography offers.

Tsing seems to be looking for evidence of creativity and freedom in the precarious livelihoods that mark capitalism’s ruins. But that’s sort of like looking for good news stories in a war zone or a famine. It doesn’t end the famine, or resolve the war; it merely makes the rest of us feel good about ourselves and consider that things maybe aren’t as bad as they seem. Yet when highly funded, well-paid tenured researchers make a living from the study of precarious livelihoods, the argument that capitalist ruins contain creative opportunities is perhaps not so surprising an outcome.

Troubling our understanding of the world is what anthropologists are good at. Criticisms aside, Tsing’s writing is as beautiful as ever. While one ought to remain skeptical of romanticizing precarity and of translating neoliberal capitalism into visions of diversity and creativity, one can delight in the rush of stories and images Tsing offers. There is indeed a method to it, and it leaves the reader much to think about.

“I can’t help but worry when the scrap metal will run out, and whether there will be enough other stuff in the ruins to make continuing survival possible.”