August 07, 2004

Anti-capital (some modest beginnings)


I suppose it's the possibility that by championing microcapitalism over macrocapitalism you are championing Thatcherism over old-school socialism.

Well, you’re certainly moving beyond ‘old-school socialism’ but are you really back into Thatcherism?

For all sorts of reasons, many of them presented on recent threads at hyperstition, I’m less than happy with using the term ‘micro-capitalism’. But what I think Simon was designating by the term - I’d prefer to call it ‘marketization’ rather than 'micro-capitalism' - is indeed anti-socialist, but is also, I would want to insist, anti-capitalist.

It’s almost charming to hear someone use the term ‘old-school socialism’ positively in the 00s. Without being toofacetious, what are people who decry Thatcherism yearning for in the pre-Thatcherite 70s? Power cuts? Raging inflation? Laughably inefficient nationalized industries? All subsidized, I shouldn’t need to add, mainly by the proletariat through taxation.

There are, needless to say, serious problems with Thatcherism but they don’t include its demolition of a decadent socialist hegemony which was as complacently cheerful in its role of administering post-Empire decline as was its Tory counterpart.

What is facile about Thatcherism is what is facile about all brands of liberal conservatism: namely, the centrality to its ontology of an uncritiqued concept of the individual. The conservative distrust of the State (good) is counterposed by its championing of the individual and ‘individual freedom’. Mrs Thatcher was explicit in her espousal of what sociologists call ‘methodological individualism’, the view that the only real social unit is the individual agent, when she (in)famously announced that there is no such thing as society.

But if Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism have taught us anything, it is that the category of the individual cannot be treated as a given. Foucault was especially vociferous in resisting the dichotomy on which Thatcherite thought was based: the individual cannot be construed as first of all free and only afterwards constrained by the State. No: the individual is, in effect, a State in miniature. As ever, Spinoza anticipated most of these positions. He argued that, since it depends upon the welfare of others, individual liberty presupposes collective freedom.

Hardt and Negri have, somewhat unconvincingly in my view, sought to revive a Spinozist concept of collectivity with their idea of the Multitude. Whatever the limitations of their argument, its value lies in its decoupling of collectivity from the State. Such a separation is essential for any effective anti-capitalism.

It’s worth pausing here to differentiate what I have in mind from the existing anti-capitalist movement. Said movement is easily but perhaps not entirely unfairly caricatured as comprised of hand-wringing middle-class quasi-socialists like Naomi Klein and freewheeling dog-on-a-rope anarcho-pranksters. Whether such a view is a grotesque distortion or not, it remains the case that no effective anti-capitalist strategy has emerged from the movement.

Klein and her ilk appear to favour a return to ‘old style socialism’ (more State intervention, higher taxation etc), whereas the anarchos seem, as ever, to oscillate between blanket nihilistic negativism and unrealistic utopianism. Both seem to make the error of treating capitalism as if it were some sort of conspiracy of the elite. In other words, they do what Marx warned against, and make a moral, rather than a systemic, critique of capitalism. Too often this emerges in the form of an Oedipal revolt aimed at the admininstators of capital, a pantomime sideshow which even they must realise has no possibility of effectuating change, underscored by the charmingly naive conviction that if only those nasty corporations were a bit nicer then everything would improve.

The most realistic account of kapital is also the most cyberpunk. Capitalism is best understood not as the product of a human cabal but as a takeover of the planet by an inhuman parasite entity, neither malevolent nor benign, but implacably locked onto pursuing its one goal - the proliferation of itself. Marx believed that capitalism’s agency was only ostensible, an illusion that could be cashed out in terms of alienated labour. But, after cybernetics, complexity theory and chaos theory, we needn’t be so anthropomorphic in our conception of what agency must involve. Kapital really is a planet-wide artificial intelligence, feeding Matrix-style, on the energy of its human slaves.


Energy, as we shall see shortly, is the crucial word here.

Marx’s critique of capital was compromised by three, related, theoretical commitments: (1) a typically nineteenth century belief that Nature was to be dominated by Promethean Man (2) a privileging of human labour (humanity, remember, is defined, according to Marx, by its capacity to work) and (3) a belief in an Hegelian model of history as guided towards an inevitable climax by ineluctable teleology.

In place of Marx’s labour-centred critique of Kapital, I propose an anti-capitalism based around the concept of Energy (Chi).

The Greens are right to this extent: all politics, all economics, ultimately all vivisystems, are about the deployment of Energy - about how energy is consumed and by whom (or what), and about how it is supplied and by whom (or what). Marx’s idea that capital is dead labour is, in the end, about the transformation of energy from organic life to inorganic capital. (Whereas we need it go from organic life to inorganic unlife, but that’s another story.) The Green argument is not only moralistic whingeing, or at least it need not be. Their point is, in a way, brutally mathematical. It is simply impossible that Third World nations develop in the same way that the west did, because, if they did, the planet’s energy resources would burn out.

Energy is the principal difficulty that Kapital faces. Kapital’s mutagenic ingenuity has allowed it to turn most problems into opportunities. But this one may turn out to be insuperable. Certainly, unless Gold’s thesis - that oil is not the product of fossils, but of a 'deep hot biosphere' - is true, then the current US-led Petropolitikal configuration has 30 years at the most. Whatever, finite energy - and we know that we live in a cosmos, of course, in which energy cannot be created only transformed - means that capital’s putatively infinite expansion does have limits.

The idea of ‘a better use of energy’ need not entail the technophobic retrenchment favoured by many Greens. It is a formula applicable at all levels of culture, from how we work and consume to how we use our ‘free’ time. At the moment, this is often a misnomer, since as the slogan used to have it, free time is time which the boss doesn’t pay you for. Time spent in convalescence from work is not time spent on the kind of autonomous activity that can meaningfully count as free. If we remember the Situationists for only one thing, it should be for their hostility to work: ‘Never work’. (One of the most genuinely pathetic aspects of ‘old style socialism’, meanwhile, was its dogmatic commitment to workerism.) Wresting time back from work and (/ = capital) is an urgent precondition for anti-capitalism, but the difficulties such a decolonization of the nervous system throws up shouldn't be underestimated. It can be about as easy as extracting a worm from your brain.


Andre Gorz, author of Critique of Economic Reason argued that what Capital has terminated is the ‘category of the sufficient’. With Capital, enough is never enough. Gorz shows that wages had to be deliberately lowered in the early stages of industrial capitalism because workers would only labour until they had earned enough to subsist for a week, then go home. The idea of accumulating money in exchange for time seemed to them absurd and irrational. At that stage of history, in other words, the Kapital Thing had not yet achieved dominance of their nervous system. But, in order to survive and replicate, Capital, itself voraciously insatiable, has to instal a twitchy discontent into the human CNS (or at least agitate what existing neuronal potential towards restless existential hunger was there) and it has been highly efficient in doing so.


Thatcher’s attachment to the individual is no accident, since the Thing seems to be able to best use Human Resources when they are individuated into user-friendly organic packets. Even so, the Thing has up until now relied upon a stripped-back mode of human collectivity - the family - in order to replenish its stock of slaves. The nuclear family (Mummy-daddy-me) has served as Capital’s principal hatchery for at least the last century. But it is now showing signs of terminal breakdown. What then?

Breakdowns can be positive if they lead to breakthroughs.

Just as in the SF flix, it is only by the formation of strong collectivities that the alien can be defeated, or at least subdued. Autonomous collectivies are anti-capitalist not by virtue of ‘organizing against capital’, as if capital were an errant ruler who could be persuaded to mend its ways, but through their production of sustainanble energy systems (in the broadest sense) that are simply indifferent to capital’s incessant injunction to replicate more of itself. Markets and other sorts of trading circuits are of course integral to this process, just as socialist-style Statist macro-organization is, at best, irrelevant, at worst, positively obstructive to it.

Anti-capitalism is not a ‘political movement’, it is a set of practices, many of them still only potentials.

Thanks to Austin, Ray, Nick, Reza, Anna, Robin, Siobahn and Luke, who may not agree with the above, but who nevertheless made it possible.

'We are all Prostitutes' t-shirt image lifted from The Pop Group site.

Posted by mark at August 7, 2004 09:35 PM | TrackBack

As always there is so much here that it seems nigh impossible to respond respectfully in this tiny box. In any case I'm not totally comfortable with your "Thing" metaphor in that it doesn't allow capital to be properly "corporate" or "network" along the lines of Hardt and Negri's analysis. Chameleonic, incorporative, but--and perhaps this is unreconstructed marxism--made by human hands, the product of human action. The various nodes of this system have faces and names and histories and addresses in the real world.

This was, in some sense, why the Matrix films unravelled into nonsense as they moved farther and farther into the supposed "real" apocalyptic world. Sci-fi is among the most powerful ideologies of Kapital, glimpses into Kapital's dreams and nightmares about itself; to pull a Zizek-like maneuver, perhaps the tale of apocalyptic "reality" is the dream, the diversion from the fact that there is only THIS world, that the villains are most certainly among us and interpolated amongst our own lives, behaviors, and activities.

That said I find myself nodding in resolute agreement with the final bit... I read somewhere about psycho-architectures (Kippenberger?), structures cobbled together from junk and the debris of old buildings... as the zeppelin of western kapital breaks up in the air that we'd best be thinking about how to use the pieces when they fall to earth. Psycho-economies? Or to follow another movie metaphor, perhaps the resistant ones aren't the embattled few trapped in the mall, fighting off the mindless zombie hordes, trying to survive--that's the myth--but the "faceless" hordes themselves. Watching these films we're looking through the dreaming eyes of Kapital: we're the ones who are "zombified" (or "thingified") in its gaze (Adorno would say think this relation quite literally: a movie audience is petrified, reduced, inhuman).

Posted by: julian myers at August 8, 2004 03:45 AM

Thanks for a lovely detailed response Julian.

I think the key theoretical difference between how I see things and what yr saying wd be over this question of whether kapital is ultimately 'human' or not . IMHO it is more Spinozist to say that Kapital really is a Thing, no metaphor. Spinoza talks of humans being overtaken by 'external forces' when they are in servitude. I think this is a better way to see Kapital - as an invasive force, like a drug or a parastite, actually scrub the 'like' there, as really a drug-parasite (just as Downham describes). The idea of 'villains' strikes me as profoundly unMarxist, too moralistic, not systemic enough. Capital isn't 'evil' - well nothing is evil according to Spinoza - it just has its own set of interests, which don't coincide with the best interests of the human species.

be careful what yr saying about zombies :-) Whenever I say anything like that, the decency cops tend to arrive and demand a recantation.... lol...

Posted by: mark at August 8, 2004 10:34 AM

Thanks Catherine, but I think you might be thinking about energy in too restricted a sense --- I'm thinking about it more cosmically, more in a Bataille way, a Chi way ----

In a sense, anti-capitalism is easy: it's any practice pursued without reference to capital's demand for MORE MORE MORE of itself --- some activities are obv ambiguous --- watching TV after work might not be directly contributing to kapital expansion (tho with advertising etc it wd be naive to set it outside kapital meta-stasis) but it is part of the 'energy economy' of kapital, i.e. yr energy is entirely locked into a labour-convalescence pattern. Equally, though, relaxing, destressing can be part of autonomous anti-capitalist practice (you can't be af full intensity at all times, though the amount of time in any given week that human beings can be at full intensity is an open pragmatic question - Deleuze and Baudrillard disagree about most things, but they are rightly in firm accord that 'needs' are generated by the system - there are no pre-existent, pre-cultural, biological needs. No-one knows what a body can do. Again think this connects with sustainability issue, though at a micro rather than a macro level. The involutive question: how little can we can get by on? Don Juan tells Castenada to only eat when he's hungry.

As for utopianism - utpopianism is a futural programme. It says, 'things will be perfect when x and y conditions are in place' (typically this involves Someone Else - Evil Capitalist Exploiters - putting those conditions in place for you). Effective anti-capitalism starts from now and here (as opposed to utopia's literal 'no place'), is immediately effective....

Hope this of some use....

Posted by: mark at August 8, 2004 01:52 PM

Again like many there is far to much to respond to in a short time. So lets cut to our big question.

Why on earth is does this need to be constructed as an ANTI-capitialism rather then a NON-capitalism?

Really is it necessary to carry the Hegelian dialectic on into yet another century? And by constructing as an opposition aren't you dooming yourself to merely respond to capital? Is it not possible to have a political economics that is not capitalism without it having to be in opposition to capital?

Will return to the energy bit, have you read Mirowski?

One final question in this initial response. What exactly do you mean when you say capitalism? Not a neoclassical economics definition I assume, but is it a Marxist definition? a Braudelian definition? or something else?

Posted by: Abe at August 8, 2004 05:00 PM

The non-capitalist point is well-made but is really a tactical/ marketing issue. In its favour:

1. Echoes of D/G Anti-Oedipus, which itself echoed Nietzsche's Antichrist. n.b. neither of these txts are dialectical, don't see why 'anti' must mean dialectically entwined with (unless yr a dialectician). Anti-capital is a presupposition for intensive practice, not an end in itself.

2. A marketing opportunity, i.e. to capture existing libido caught up in the (so-called) Anti-Capitalist movement...

But these are pragmatic criteria obv

Will return to the energy bit, have you read Mirowski?

no, tell me more....

On the capitalist definition, it's being endlessly chewed over at hyperstition, I prefer a very narrow economic def (system for replication of capital), coz capital itself produces this narrow def of the economic...

Posted by: mark at August 8, 2004 05:33 PM

Mark, very good post; unfortunately can't participate in the discussion right now but think Abe is right: 'energy' problem is v important. I highly suggest Philip Mirowski too; both his early' More Heat than Light' (an exceptional unthermoconomic work) and his later works.

Posted by: Reza at August 8, 2004 06:20 PM

Thanks R -- am now heading for google!!

Posted by: mark at August 8, 2004 07:00 PM

So I've been quite pleasantly detached from the blogsphere for the past couple months. Anyone care to point out the relevant "definition of capitalism" posts on Hyperstition?

Mark's call for building an anti-capital around energy still cracks me up because Mirowski has spent so much time trying arguing that neoclassical economics is precisely an attempt to build a economics of energy mirroring 19th century thermodynamics almost precisely. Of course their approach to energy is quite different then Mark's so there is no real critical value there, just amusement.

Mark, I'm curious as to how much you are looking to build off of Bataille? who of course was also very much looking at economics in terms of energy.

Posted by: Abe at August 8, 2004 07:54 PM

No problem try these:

actually think the two points (on Bataille and Mirowski) link together (tho my knowledge of Bataille is scarcely any greater than my knowledge of Mirowski, but is increasing under instigation from glueboot): can't classical economix be critiqued as a restricted economy of energy?

abe, are you an economics expert? I know next to nothing about it, so any input from you would be highly useful...

Posted by: mark at August 8, 2004 08:21 PM

are you an economics expert?

More like a wannabe economics expert. For the last year or so I've been working off a hypothesis that there exists a non rationalist nomad economics that can be extracted from economic history is a manner roughly similar to Deleuze identify the nomad philosophy hidden within the histories of philosophy.

The deeper I dig into it more paths I find I need to trace. There is an awful lot more non-Marxist/non-neoclassical economics out there then one would expect. Plus neoclassical economics also appears to be in the current process of eating itself alive. Over the past decade the entire field it seems is either a) critiquing itself or b) attempting to indoctrinate as much as the public as possible in the gospel of the free market. Its sort of reaching the point where the priests all know its a scam but they're is no way in hell they are going to give up the power the scam gives them.

But back to the point. I think you are right that "classical economix" (by which I assume you mean neoclassical economics) could be "critiqued as a restricted economy of energy". But I'm not quite sure what the point would be. To critique on that level would be to give too much credit to the form, which can quite easily be dismissed right at its fundamental assumptions, rational choice and the idea of free markets.

The first assumption to me is the most absurd and it still boggles my mind as to how this crap is accepted anywhere. We have a whole field here that is based on the assumption that human beings are rational actors whose overriding goal is to maximize their economic value. In many universities the economics department is in the same building as the psychology one, yet its clear no one ever bothered to walk in between the two...

The whole concept of a free market probably better wait, but we probably agree on the absurdity of it, if not on the specifics.

As for input, not sure particularly what you want, I'm still trying to sort through this mess of non-marxist, non-neoclassical economics myself.

Posted by: Abe at August 8, 2004 11:22 PM

re: input, this is a great start...

obv not clear on the difference between classical and neoclassical economix...

totally agree that RAT is so totally, laughably absurd that one can hardly believe it is taken seriously....

actually, been looking into this thing neuroeconomics recently --- there was an article on it in Newsweek last week ---

--- this totally rejects RAT -- you gotta laugh at that bit where it says that the only ppl who behaved 'rationally' were the autistics lol!!

Posted by: mark at August 9, 2004 12:10 AM

I and here I was thinking the only people who behaved "rationally" where the neoclassical economists... good to see they have company in the loon bin.

Article is interesting, the neuro bit is new, but if you want to know more about the broader field of Behavioral Economics, Robert Frank is the one to turn to. I haven't read his most recent stuff, but he seems to be moving more and more into Thorstein Veblen territory, and if there is a Spinoza to a nomad economics Veblen is it. Frank on the other like so many contemporary critics of the neoclassicals, seems unwilling actually kill the damn thing.

The difference between neoclassical and classical in a nutshell is time. Classical is Adam Smith and a bunch of dinosaurs. Neoclassical is basically 1940's onward. This distinction might be less clear in the UK where Alfred Marshall bridges the gap. In the US we actually got a bit of a pause, a few decades where the Institutionalists (mainly Veblen, Wesley Mitchell and John Commons) where a powerful force in economics. John Galbraith is something of the last gasp (I think he's 99) of this school, although again he is happy to criticize the neoclassicals, but in the end falls back on many of the same techniques.

Note that there is also a neoinstitutionalist school, who follow Coase and Williamson. They tend to be highly conservative although there is a liberal branch. They share nothing with the institutionalists except that they reject the neoclassicals willingness to ignore firms entirely.

Posted by: Abe at August 9, 2004 01:56 AM

Thanks, this is EXACTLY what I need...

I've got that Theory of the Leisure Class, never read it (Baudrillard a real enthusiast) but will now!

Posted by: mark at August 9, 2004 08:51 AM

I'm not an economics expert, but I've studied it a few times and applied it in business heaps. I'm not on top of the hyperstition stuff -- made a conscious decision not to invest time there being days (hours???) away from the new baby. But I'd point out a few points that seem reasonable to me:

* "markets" aren't "capitalism". Markets are a seriously ancient human institution; capitalism looks to me like a fairly recent form of economic organiation that probably won't be around all that long.
* I kinda see what Simon means by "microcapitalism" but it's a bit loose -- shoulda said "traders" or "economic agents" or something but none of those terms are really satisfactory
* that said "micro-capitalists" within the music biz really are very likely to be ripping people off along the way
* trade, especially international trade, could be great. Free trade is a good idea -- I'd welcome it enthusiastically if someone were to seriously propose it. There's not much of it about, at least where poor countries are concerned
* free markets are fantastic! I've seen very few of them -- i.e. markets whose efficiency is not destroyed by thing like negative externalities (look them up!) -- think roads / cars; not a free market at all.
* people who slag off marketing do not, in the main, understand what marketing is.
* the left needs to do a bit better to convince people that left politics can feed / clothe/ house the world than (pace John Eden) banging on about abolishing money.

Posted by: paul "Essex boy" meme at August 9, 2004 03:03 PM

Paul, I agree with EVERY WORD --- bravo!!!

Fingers crossed for the baby mate, but do come over to hyperstition, I think there should be lots over there to connect with...

Posted by: mark at August 9, 2004 03:39 PM

Agree with Paul as well, and I can't resist adding in that the Braudel/Delanda capitalism+markets/antimarkets conception pretty much solves all these problems. Except of course the whole issue what capitalism is...

But under Braudel's definition of capitalism, Simon's "micro-capitalists" would not even be considered capitalists at all. They have no capital to their name! Well maybe a few thousand quid, but really on the scale of global capital that is the equivalent of nothing.

Braudel of course also makes the distinction between markets and capitalism beyond clear. By his account capitalism is not a product of the market in any sense at all, but instead has always been *antimarket* from the get go.

Now this realization, backed by Braudel's massive to the point amount of absurd amounts of historical research, completely undermines the base assumptions of both marxism and neoclassical economics. The markets can no longer be marxist villains, but they aren't the magical problem solving machines the neoclassicals fetishize them as either.

There is a major scarcity of work addressing how markets actually work, but McMillan's _Reinventing the Bazaar_ isn't half bad if you can wrest his insights away from his neoclassical faith. He's yet another economist ripping against the core assumptions of the field without being able to give up the ghost.

As for free markets being fantastic, I'd agree with Paul, but with a different sense of the word. More like fantastical. Of course they are fantastic, they don't exist! Nor will they ever exist, except perhaps as a TAZ of some sort...

And yeah, forgot to add, for mark or anyone looking for an excellent way to gain perspective on Economic thought as a whole, Heilbroner's _The Worldly Philosophers_ is an essential read/reread.

Posted by: Abe at August 9, 2004 06:51 PM

need to amend the classical vs. neoclassical. What I left out completely was that within economics *Marx* is actually considered a classical economist...

Posted by: Abe at August 12, 2004 02:39 AM