Mitchell, I appreciate a well thought-out rebuttal here. This is a hairy topic and it’s easy to get caught up in semantics (something I really love doing actually, so I’m not bothered a bit).
I definitely agree ignorance towards externalities is an issue, but I’d push back on that being what’s referred to when we, Tsing, or anti-capitalist critics at large speak of commodification. The critique typically lands in the philosophical realm: commodifying is abstracting some inherent, axiomatic value an object/person/“thing” embodies to facilitate its exchange for things of otherwise incomparable value. In a capitalist market, it’s required by design; using currency/money (a commodity itself), we need some way to translate things of value (natural resources, human labor-time) to the currency in order to exchange again for other things of value. There is an inevitable loss of value (for lack of a better word) that you cannot quantify specifically because it cannot be represented by a system that simplifies.
A good way (hopefully!) to distinguish this: If you believe alienation is a prerequisite for commodification, then you do not believe any greater amount of money in exchange for the commodity makes up the value lost by commodifying. If you reduce the issue to “internalizing externalities,” you assume an increase in cost makes up for the inherent value lost. The former believes currency/commodity is inherently insufficient, whereas the latter finds it an appropriate representation of a thing’s real value.
While I am one to believe that, yes, commodification is inherently bad because it contributes to the alienation that severs relationships other cultures appreciate (thinking Kimmerer’s essays), I’ll try to stick with defending my interpretation of Tsing’s beliefs rather than my own. Tsing’s argument is larger than the question of externalities. She hits it pretty early on:
There is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into resources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter. (p. 5)
By the very act of investing (currency) in humans and nonhumans - through a specifically capitalist mode of economics - we have abstracted the complexities of living relationships. This isn’t the setup for an argument claiming that if we were to pay more for negative impacts of economic activity that things would balance out; the commodity introduces the problem from the start. She continues:
Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere. (p. 5)
I.e. commodification isolates a “thing” from its nature, allowing it to to be exchanged for something with which it has no relationship outside of the economics. Finishing up…
This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world–for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. (p. 5)
Commodifying something in order to objectify it elsewhere does not dignify it in the same way natural processes utilize their constituents. All this said, I’d caution against simplifying Tsing’s critique of capitalism to the tendency to externalize costs. She’s taking issue with the commodity itself, not how much we account for it in certain processes.
Less critical to discussing Tsing, but so as to not ignore a good point you bring up: Also agreed that forms the world has seen of “communism” or “socialism” fall into this trap of alienation and dehumanization. An important thing to remember is that historically these societies that have attempted to move beyond Western confines found themselves continuing to play in a capitalist global context. If you want to talk about socialism or communism (strictly with respect to Marx for argument’s sake), we wouldn’t be accurate in using either to describe the USSR or China at any point. That (and even expanding upon the discussion of alienation/commodity fetishism) is worth many more words outside of the scope of Emmett’s post.