Afterthought: Hypocrites, or Just Proles?


ISSUE 97 | PROPHECIES II | APR 2021

This article responds to Ben Carter Olcott’s piece, Just This.


Animals, by Pavel Filonov, c. 1926

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil...Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.
            —Karl Marx

Climate change is a large problem. Such is the scale of the global transformation of our environment that nobody on earth can assuredly say that it won’t impact their lives, perhaps drastically. While the planet will certainly remain habitable for life of some kind, it’s much less clear if that will include the human species, at least in any form we’d easily recognise. Proposed solutions are quickly dismissed as blatantly inadequate (carbon credits) or too radical to be realized or even seriously considered by any remotely democratic state (degrowth). The magnitude of this progression, and the paucity of answers to it, has not escaped the attention of any profession, including philosophers.

For Timothy Morton, a particular emotional response to ecological catastrophe—the sensation of being dwarfed by scale—is indispensable to understanding the era we’re living through. In their 2013 book Hyperobjects, they coined that term to an attempt to grasp the grandiose scale of the planet’s transformation by climate change. For Morton, “hyperobjects” are enormous but literally real objects that share some curious characteristics: they are “viscous,” “molten,” “nonlocal,” “phased,” and “interobjective.” Hyperobjects was a classic in a now largely forgotten theory trend known as object-oriented ontology (OOO), and used this framework to try and grasp the chaos wrought by 21st-century global warming. In this account, the vastness of the challenge of reducing global carbon emissions stretches our very use of concepts. As a hyperobject, climate change is a paradigmatic example, ranking alongside other standards of social theory like capitalism.

In my reply, I want to take you through another, older, and in my opinion much better way of thinking through ecological catastrophe—namely, Marxism’s account of the large-scale logics that influence our lives, and that we influence in turn.

In his article for this issue of Hypocrite Reader, Ben Carter Olcott interprets Hyperobjects as an ecological case for epistemic modesty and a welcoming approach to the (seemingly) alien:

Hyperobjects is most convincing in its attempts to transform our resistances into revelations—turning the “uncanny” into a kind of ecological listening, complicity into an ecological humility.

This epistemic modesty and “ecological humility” are a response to what is described as an “end of the world” caused by human hubris. I don’t want to deny the sensation of being dwarfed by the scale of global warming. I can provide no easy set of instructions for our species’s continued survival. My hope is not so much to pour the cold water of historical materialism over an inflamed theorization of the apocalypse but instead to provide another route for us to make sense of the objects we interact with while coping and surviving with 21st-century life.

I. Commodities and Their Fetish-Character

Ben Olcott stresses the super-sensual qualities of hyperobjects (their extension beyond that which we can perceive or interact with tangibly), equating them to divine forms:

Hyperobjects are God-like in their distance from us, except they are undeniably real—they are even partially perceptible. That is, perhaps, the reason for their profound strangeness: they are both here but not, seeable but too big to delineate.

Before I can address this reverential view of “hyperobjects” themselves, let’s start small, with ordinary objects. Specifically, those items capitalism requires us to continually produce and puts chase to: commodities. As a way into this mysterious topic, I’ll take up two examples, the first from Olcott (MacBooks) and the second from Morton (My Bloody Valentine).

What are computers made of? Olcott’s answer is wide ranging, descending into the wiring of these popular devices, sketching their materials and hinting at their designers. While this investigation is lucid, Olcott ends by throwing up his hands: we can't fully know such a familiar object as the computer. This account of qualities of everyday devices finally describes them as evasive and super-sensual: “the computer recedes from perception as I start to consider it.” Complex goods are thus something of a puzzle (even if it’s clear that their production endangers the planet). What Olcott treats quite lightly is the labor process that puts together commercial computers, which perhaps can tell us a lot more about the place they have in our lives.

I write this on my rapidly decaying budget-range ThinkPad not out of any special contempt for Apple: as the 2019 lawsuit shows, they are by no means remarkable as a tech firm. We can explore Apple not as a unique entity but as a uniquely successful variation on a productive firm. However, investigating their devices by descending to the sub-molecular level before at least a passing consideration of the human energy expended producing them—as Olcott regrettably does—misses the insights available through placing their situation in “political economy.”

Olcott does present Apple as immersed in capitalism, but we can say a bit more about what that means—and in particular the relationship of labor to its products. Let’s leave aside the highly paid army of electronic engineers, software engineers, and whoever else that the company was proud to tell us labored under the tyrannical yoke of Steve Jobs, and since then under the (presumably broadly similar) reigns of his successors. Apple itself is perfectly happy to divulge “design phase” entrails, ad nauseum. Let’s put to one side too the diligent marketing team (whose devious “Think Different” slogan gave the consumption of high end electronics an edgy veneer), and the lazy jobbing journalists who habitually C&P their latest press releases. Let’s even pass over their small army of “Geniuses” who staff their branded storefronts to ease customers through the process of scheduled obsolescence.

Instead, let’s consider the fabrication of the laptop itself.

Olcott refers to the laptop consisting of “some metals,” before taking a deep dive into its circuitry. The most notorious of these “some metals” is cobalt, required for lithium batteries, which is primarily mined by workforces in Africa that frequently include child workers. While this has been known since the 2000s, there’s no sign of an alternative to the lithium battery being devised. In 2019, Apple landed in court over the iPhone's inclusion of these components, alongside Google, Tesla, Dell, and Microsoft, in a case put together by various international human rights NGOs.

This raw material is then wrangled in classic transnational style through a Taiwanese contractor (Foxconn), with factories largely operative in mainland China. Again, since the 2000s it’s been no secret that Foxconn’s working regimes are so harsh that many of their workers are driven to deaths of despair, with suicides at one of their factories so commonplace they installed nets to capture jumping workers. It’s at this level that Apple operates in the way any capitalist firm must.

Considered from this point of view, Apple’s many geniuses fall short of being truly responsible in the way not only Apple would like us to believe but many “anti-consumerists” accept. All their work is oriented towards the exchange value. As Michael Heinrich puts it in his introduction to Capital:

Marx did not use the term “commodity fetish” to describe how people in capitalism place an undue importance upon the consumption of commodities, or that they make a fetish out of particular commodities that serve as status symbols. The term also does not refer to making a fetish of brand names. There is no “secret” behind possessing expensive commodities as status symbols that needs to be deciphered.

Apple computers and any other kind ultimately have more in common than apart: they are all part of the commodity form. Through commodities we can link everyday items with the grander forces that Morton classes as hyperobjects. These devices (perfectly ordinary in any seminar room or graphic design studio) have a second super-sensual register, as we situate their role in the domination of our planet by commodity production. While Olcott skillfully teases out Morton’s framing of the super-sensual as an infinite regress of more objects throwing more objects back at the perceiver, my view of the way commodities necessarily extend beyond our senses is quite different. Our world is dominated by Capital in ways that are revealed by a “second pass” of scrutiny of the objects it tirelessly churns out.

II. “I don’t know...Maybe you could not hurt me now”

Let’s dive into an example provided by Morton: British shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine (better known by their fans as MBV). When listening to MBV, Morton reports a numinous joy, which they consider exemplary of the Hyperobject. (For those taking a first plunge into shoegaze, I’d also suggest Loop, Pale Saints, Jesu, and Ride.) Is this ethereal, noise-soaked music truly a gateway to apprehension beyond the human? I’d love to believe so, but we can equally take it to be a product of labor, culturally elevated exactly by the terms it was originally put to record.

Easily the best known of the shoegaze bands, My Bloody Valentine were among a group of acts who pioneered a novel approach to ambient rock. Whereas the recently deceased pop producer Phil Spector had used his “wall of sound” to deliver mass relatable and catchy refrains with mono clarity (“We’re not too young / Young to get married,” “I’m going to wait until my Bobby comes home / Wait until my Bobby comes home”), shoegaze instead effaces clear meaning both in delivery and mixing. Shoegaze was already known for downplaying vocal tracks with “soft singing,” producing an approach to songwriting which emphasised sound texture, and composition choices that reflected integration of multilayered production processes. The delicately layered records were then confounded by live performances prone to washing these complexities into obscurity with waves of overbearing noise, with more of their structure apparent through earplugs than raw.

It’s hard to recall three full lyrics from the band’s hit “Sometimes,” the murmured delivery ebbing out of reach every few seconds beneath the riff’s slow throb. These vocals are not intended to catch in the mind but are deliberately buried beneath a sediment of processed guitar loops—the tracks only “songs” in the murkiest sense.

Isolating this to the single best known album Loveless (1991), we hear not only a high water mark of the guitar effects pedal in popular culture, but also a fantastically overblown recording that blended band mythos with a sense of otherworldliness the band’s earlier work had only sketched. Loveless stretched the limits of LP overheads: the record’s conception featured nineteen studios and too many engineers to easily count, exhausting a budget that defunct music magazine Melody Maker estimated at £250,000. Notoriously, it led to a falling-out with Creation Record’s indie mogul Alan McGee and MBV frontman Kevin Shields, despite the eventual album’s critical and popular success.

While Shields disputes the estimate of a quarter million in expenses (others have argued it could have cost still more), he concedes the process was halting and incremental. By the time MBV tackled the recording of Loveless, the various elements from ethereal vocals and heavily treated drum machine loops had been strung together across prolonged timespans, impossible for any one participant to easily keep track of:

We recorded the drums in September ’89. The guitar was done in December. The bass was done in April. 1990 we’re in, now. Then nothing happens for a year really. So it doesn’t have vocals at this stage? No. Does it have words? No. Does it even have a title? No. It has a song number. “Song 12” it was called. And ... I’m trying to remember ... the melody line was done in ’91. The vocals were ’91. There were huge gaps though. Months and months of not touching songs. Years. I used to forget what tunings I’d used.

This process of recording was inscrutable to outsiders. The band and their sound engineers were markedly guarded towards one another, and recording was repeatedly delayed for various reasons, including the performers developing tinnitus from their notoriously loud live shows.

But in retrospect, we cannot sever this very excess in production expenses from the continuing interest and success the band enjoyed throughout their career (with their years of hiatus throughout the 1990s only driving this interest). Together with a tastelessly dubbed “Holocaust” section of their hit You Made Me Realise, which when performed live lasted up to half an hour and tested the limits of even the most seasoned members of the audience, Loveless’s recording history associated My Bloody Valentine with flagrant excess. The band exceeded the limits of good business sense and the human eardrum until they attracted enormous crowds of avid listeners.

Just as the budgets of blockbuster hits are measured in the tens of millions of dollars, with “Hollywood Accounting” requiring plenty of spending for the sake of spending, the overblown costs of Loveless provided a factoid for trade journalists to regurgitate whenever the band was mentioned. While framed as fitful perfectionism rather than trolling, the album is reminiscent of the satirical theatrics of KLF, whose K Foundation Burn a Million Quid saw them purposefully wrote a manufactured hit, complete with a published “how to” guide for those wishing to imitate them, before burning their proceeds.

I’m not saying that the numinous potency of Loveless that so overwhelms Morton is mere fuzz to shield a basic conjuring trick. I’m only pointing out how the image of a feckless perfectionist blowing through hundreds of grand so captured the musical underground of the 1990s that it appeared twice over1, and continues to hold traction even in drastically changed global economic circumstances.

And all this has clear implications for how we listen, and what exactly we’re listening to. In their book, Morton calls for a “tuning” to this other reality, the reality in which other lifeforms exist, are beyond human governance but are nonetheless our intimates. But considering MBV we can consider how “otherworldliness” can be a fabrication very much cut from the cloth of our own world. We love the notion of technology as a beast that gets fed endless bundles of cash to produce something beautiful, and we love it no less in the case of equally intricate output on cheap equipment (as seen with the recently passed SOPHIE).

Much like the NFTs now burning through the energy we’d usually expect from minor nation states, MBV demonstrates to us the glamor of productive excess. We can fully expect capitalism to continue working efficiently in some arenas, and with spectacular extravagance in others.

III. The Chad “Queer Thing” & the Virgin Hyperobject

As we’ve strayed into consumer electronics and cultural production, we’re focusing on commodities that are perhaps uniquely interesting to a wider audience. While other often-bought objects we might have lying around the house, such as the banana, have their own intricate human histories, comparatively few of us are likely to take any great interest in them.2 Nevertheless, any commodity is mutually comparable in these terms: picture for a moment how many bananas could be purchased for the same cost as the latest iMac. So however intensely we may interact with the particular commodities we happen to have to hand, the broader economy treats these products as (from one view) interchangeable.

In other words, commodities occupy an ambivalent position: as both Olcott and Morton turn their attention to them closely, they find themselves struck with awe at workings beyond easy understanding in their complexity, their numinous glow. Yet at once for both Apple and retailers, they serve as “units” to be distributed steadily through a logistics system. Neither face is the “real” one: we find numinous meaning in goods brought to market regularly, including those hard to identify as commodities at all.

It’s exactly because of this ambivalence that Karl Marx referred to commodities as “mysterious” or “queer”:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labor. This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself.

An Apple laptops (whether the latest edition to have its specs touted in the Guardian, or a several-“generations” old disaster well beyond the help of the Geniuses) and albums like Loveless (whether in FLAC or vinyl format or streamed) are commodities in the irreducible sense that they both get bought and sold. They make the social quality of labor appear in an “objective” state, while remaining “social things.” The sensual and non-immediate qualities of commodities are both decisive in the roles they play in our lives. We can grasp some aspects of a computer by typing into it, while others will escape us without reading journalism or lawsuits. To make sense of commodities requires treating them as objects with a full view of their obvious uses, the way they were produced, and the layers of hype that shape our view of them.

Not only must we consider commodities in terms of their uses, production, and treatment with marketing gloss all at once to understand any feature of the role they play in our lives, we have to consider each of these lines of analysis in different ways, as best suits a sound explanation. In Olcott’s treatment these qualities instead become simply “thrown back,” as electrons and an Apple logo are treated with a jumbled equivalence. At once when we look at a laptop we see the history of the factory, and branding campaigns, and small-scale cultural production’s enmeshment with massive tech firms. Each of these features must be done justice for us to sort objects from hype (if indeed we ever can).

IV. Reason and “the Rift”

Both Hyperobjects and Olcott’s riff on it share a reliance on the ontology of Martin Heidegger, specifically his notion of the “rift.” As Olcott puts it, the economic system ranks alongside other “Hyperobjects” like Climate Change, possible to encounter directly only through reason:

And so in Capitalism: an individual gives me no hint of the shape of a market, but when I look at a market, I do not see individuals, I see swaths of behavioral choice. An individual is a unit within capitalism, but it is not capitalism itself. Neither is labor, alone, capitalism; it is the manipulation of labor; the thing, and the process that moves it, at once. Global warming is just like this: when rain falls on my head, I do not feel global warming. I feel water landing on my scalp—and that is all my senses can tell me. Yet that isn’t everything that’s happening in the droplet: it was brought here by insensible but real forces—climate forces—that are an essential part of its being-there at all.

Ecologism for Morton means being struck down by awe at the forthcoming devastation the planet will experience (and already experiences). This moment of numinous horror hits us in much the same way as hearing the fuzz and muted chants of shoegaze for the first time. The power of the hyperobject arises in its generality and scale: such is their scope that they extend well beyond the immediate work of the senses, instead requiring a detachment from our own circumstances to account for. In other words, the term “hyperobject” is serving an interchangeable role here with what other traditions would term “abstractions.” But what do we lose from this view?

Firstly, what vanishes is class conflict. As a hyperobject, capitalism appears much more vaguely than as a mode of production. Capitalism is not, as Olcott suggests, reducible to “behavioral choice” routed through markets. While prices are assigned largely through “market forces,” for capital to sustain its accompanying mode of production requires coercion of workers through raw necessity. What’s ideological about markets is not that they dominate economies, but that focusing on them sets the truth of the class relation back to front: rather than impoverished people being unfortunately unable to buy what they need, the reality of proletarian existence is being forced to continuously sell, despite having few or no commodities to bring to market.

The “proletariat,” as Marx treats it, is a relation of separation of the means of production. While capital does require everyone to engage in a continual process of sale (for most of us, primarily broken down into hours of toil), most have nothing to sell beyond bundles of their labor. Employers pay them for their services, yet workers are obliged to cultivate themselves as laborers, without recompense (in Marxist jargon this is the distinction between labor as the use-value of the labor commodity and the labor-power which is truly being bought with each work contract—and which it falls to the laborer to make available). Having to make themselves available for work ensures that their workplaces extend deeply into the ethical experiences of all who depend on them.

Along the way, any laborer surely comes to realise intimately well how they manage their own bodily needs, and the demands of the workplace: a glass of wine might help you unwind and get ready for bed, while a bottle of wine could leave you too groggy the next morning to think straight before noon. These intuitive calculations (and missteps) are the “sensuous” flow of our participation in political economy. This is as once part of the broadest possible process, and an immediate matter we can’t help but be plunged into. Both willfully and intuitively, we make ourselves available as capital requires.

Beyond the individual or immediate level, yet beneath the cavernous scale of the hyperobject, we find relationships that, while inherently remarkable, are often explained more simply, and experienced, not as wonder at untold magnitude but instead as a pinion holding us in place. While not every renter considers their landlord a loathsome social parasite, the knot of dread in the stomach as the month draws to an end is known by millions. The role of reason in class struggle is exactly to thread these moments collectively, to recognize that there is a “we” that we belong to: distinct from all humans but broader than the individual. This realisation will often be directly built out of our immediate encounters with capitalism, but only through some broader comparison (the work of abstraction) can any individual plight be truly made sense of.

While one might feel hunger or the cold, linking these sensations with a broader system requires an investigation into the more abstracted circumstances which dominate us. To think more abstractly about our circumstances requires both drawing away from our immediate conditions and sustaining our gaze carefully. Whether we cry out “No one has suffered, such as I!” or we declare cooly “Who hasn’t known this heartache?,” we deny the truth of the situation in question.

What we can’t lose from our sight is the human participation required actively at every turn by capitalist relations. It can be reassuring to see capital as a distant and aloof force, but in reality capitalist labor requires at every moment the immersion of the proletariat in its logic to continue. And for this reason, our response to seeing horrors or indignities inflicted in the interests of capital may not be awe but solidarity and rage at a shared (and unnecessary) plight.

V. Social Domination

In the Marxist tradition, a loose distinction is made between the indispensable features of life any society must provide and pursuits usually taken to be more refined or elevated. Besides our will to pursue transcendent concerns, all of us need food, places of shelter, and other basic amenities. While these can be foregone in ascetic exercises, for the most part workforces require food and lodgings if they are to remain functioning workforces across time. Animal functions are therefore wrapped up with continual sale of labor. But workforces are not kept in place solely by the tethers of their basic needs. The desires of the proletariat never vanished, and their efforts to realise them are the basis for what Marx dubs “concrete labour”; desire, too, keeps laborers working. Capital at once frustrates and requires the proletariat’s movement towards realisation of human potentiality.

At this point we should compare the position I’m introducing to what Olcott has to say on the question of human particularity:

Global warming collapses the World because it’s no longer possible to think of the sea without the microplastics destroying its fauna, no longer possible to consider air without the pollution and ash that cause chronic disease. Those earthen objects are not away, anymore—they’re here, all the time, in the real Earth. The capital-W World in which humans are inevitably centered, in which our objects—organic and inorganic alike—appear as mere implements of our desire, is over.

Morton treats the vast power of hyperobjects as a sort of cosmic horror; they are vast entities towering over us that do not care for our lives. The impersonal qualities of our domination by capital are very familiar to us reds, but our account of how this unfolds is quite different. While the violence of the capitalist state’s efforts to preserve norms of property ownership are unmistakable (consider the brutality with which police forces around the world treat the homeless or traveling communities), these efforts are only one part of how exploited workforces are sustained. Capital has established itself through the social domination of the workforces that make it up. This social domination includes but can’t be reduced to outright propaganda, the institutional formation of subjectivity, and the other “technologies of the self” that have recently preoccupied social theory.

Capitalist states secure their workforces through ideological interventions, but even without these efforts (and even when those attempts falter, as we’ve seen them do repeatedly during the COVID crisis) these workforces are de facto obliged to remain in work by the social domination of life in the context of separation. Without selling our labor-power, we have no means to buy coverage of our basic needs.

This isn’t to say that being part of the proletariat means unceasing destitution: historically, countless struggles both openly declared (such as strikes or wage bargaining) and ad hoc have resulted in innumerable breakthroughs and capitalist workforces securing advances in living standards. Both the provisioning and oppression overseen by the state are constantly responsive to class struggle, and civic agitation. However, what’s consistent is the proletariat’s coercion (primarily via social domination) into one workforce or another.

The horror of capitalism is not its incomprehensible or overbearing scale (even though it has come to dominate the entire surface of the planet). It’s that even after a moment of having the “scales fall from our eyes,” we see before us not a series of illusions but a secular sacrificial ceremony—that continues whether we believe in it or not.

VI. Humans and Other Workers

So what is the fate of humanity? To be human in a capitalist context is to constantly participate in workforces (including an “industrial reserve army” which drives down wages by their being kept perpetually out of work). This work provides us with a varying amount of sustenance but never suffices to draw free of the overall condition of being proletarianised.

How animals are integrated into capitalist workforces is more ambiguous. Clearly, every class society has made extensive use of them. During the COVID crisis, capitalist states went to great lengths to ensure even that slaughterhouses remained in operation. Marxists have been divided on whether animals are part of the workforce that contribute their labor-power to capital, given the enlistment of so many millions of animals by humans in their profit-making activities. Fahim Amir is one theorist who has argued for animals being included, in his book Being and Swine:

In my understanding, animals and animality are part of the continuity of living labour-power, which in the Marxist tradition is opposed to dead labour, another world for capital. The former can be tamed to a certain extent, but it can also become feral…

Others have argued that such a view undermines the status of labor-power (both a commodity like any other and quite a distinctive one) as founded in a social relation.3 In other words, whatever labor power an animal might have, it’s only its integration in societies dominated by capital which can make it be realised as such. Animals are workers, but their toil is bent towards our human ends at every turn.

Uniquely among the species drawn upon by capitalism, human proletarians are prone to making remarks like “The factory I work at contributes to global warming,” or “As an ecologist intellectual, I feel like a hypocrite for emitting so much carbon.” We may be able to identify the logic of capital, but we can’t pull free of it through any intellectual exercise alone. We feel this dissonance between our understanding and our individual capabilities, and call it “hypocrisy” or “complicity.” In fact it is neither: rather than a delusion or ideological trap, living in the context of capitalism means facing down a socially dominant set of coercive circumstances. Capital operates not through trickery but through a logic that compel us to one side of a labor relation or another.

This plight is not a historically transcendent “human truth,” but it is a result of our capacity to form complex societies. Marx drew from Aristotle a notion of humans as not only political animals (ζῷον πoλιτικόν, a term Aristotle also used to describe ants and bees), but distinctive among such animals for their capacity to reason socially and account for their own conditions, a precondition for “politics” in the sense we usually use the term today.4 This curious feature of humans as animals in our relation to capital can never, on its own, put us beyond its demands.

It’s for this reason we see so many who are at once vocal in arguing for lockdowns and themselves obliged as “essential laborers” to continue to attend workplaces that will obviously contribute to the spread of COVID-19. This dissonance does not originate from any moral inconsistency. The reality of proletarian life is that few of us (even now) are gifted with an understanding landlord.

Our capacity for reasoning through our domination by capital is a necessary, if not sufficient, feature of revolutionary change. It’s for this reason that moral examinations (such as accusing ourselves of hypocrisy) will rarely have a decisive role in revolutionary change.

Most of us achieve class consciousness not through aloof contemplation, but by running into continual setbacks and frustrations that seem to overarch any particular struggle. Class struggle requires some degree of abstract investigations to understand fully. Participation in capitalism becomes intuitive not through a con job, but because the overall system has its own articulated logic. Our workplaces are dire not because our employers are ignorant or inconsiderate men (although they often enough are!), but because without exploitation they would immediately cease to function as capitalist firms. Our planet is being destroyed not because oil and car companies do not grasp the nature or scope of the problem (indeed they were the first to do so, in hastily buried internal reports!), but because the valorisation of capital requires ever proliferating commodity generation, at whatever cost.

With that said, the human capacity for grasping abstractions for our own ends is far from consistently emancipatory. It’s also allowed for complex justifications of oppressive social systems. Marx provided a sweeping overview of these in the first volume of Capital, writing that whereas ancients had “perhaps excused the slavery of one on the ground that it was a means to the full development of another,” the Christian capitalists of Marx’s era instead:

...Preach slavery of the masses in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus might become “eminent spinners,” “extensive sausage-makers,” and “influential shoe-black dealers.”

To cleave through these historically shifting, if consistently self-serving, arguments for ruthless social orders, we cannot allow ourselves to be so easily overwhelmed by the social totality’s tendency to tower over us. Instead, we need to explore capital not as one parallel hyperobject to other abstractions, but instead as a restlessly creative presence: one that appears to exhaust the natural world in one way after the next, but from another perspective generates what we take to be “nature” in order to further exploit it in ever-proliferating ways.

VII. Buried In Night Soil

One place to start appears to be with the “metabolic rift” (Stoffwechsel). This term appeared in Marx’s writing to describe the depletion and devastation caused by the industrialisation of capitalism, already pressingly evident by the mid-19th century. As Jordy Rosenberg has it in the Afterword of the forthcoming collection Transgender Marxism, “metabolic rift” describes:

the increasing distance between the sites of consumption and the sites of production, which results in the non-return of waste products to the site at which they are produced, and the resulting impoverishment of the soil.

Here we see the stakes in Marx’s much more famous dispute with the laborists of his day in his Critique of the Gotha Program. While the socialists Marx criticised here identified labor as the source of all wealth, Marx’s unpublished rejoinder emphasised that humanity’s domination of nature remained the presupposed basis for labor’s exploitation.

The metabolic rift Marx was concerned with was soil fertility, which in the 19th century suffered from a depletion in nutrients, through competitive demands of vying capitalist firms. As Out of the Woods collective put it in their 2015 series on capitalist agriculture and the capitalist crisis:

Insofar as fossil fuels are the energy source for food fertilisation, the process contributes to greenhouse gas emissions twice, since the method of “steam reforming” to produce H2 gas from CH4 produces CO2 as a byproduct. It contributes three times if the emissions from transporting manufactured fertiliser back to agricultural regions are included. The purpose of this brief chemistry lesson is to highlight that the metabolic rift in the nitrogen cycle is not resolved but displaced onto the carbon cycle.

Still today, capital is not only reducible to exploited working hours (although these are always a feature!). Capitalism requires a particular relationship of humanity to nature, just as it requires a specific set of relations from person to person. The intensification of climate change raises the stakes in any drive towards post-capitalism: as accumulation continues, the planet gives way.

Clearly at this juncture, drastic changes are required not only of our “personal choices” but also of the circumstances in which we choose.

Capitalism’s answers to this crisis are primarily producing new markets: “carbon credits” as a fresh commodity suitable for keeping the planet habitable. But we can’t rely on this drive towards accumulation to see us through into a new era. This conclusion brings me through to my last point: the inadequacy of apocalyptic writing to save the planet.

VIII. Apocalypse and Revolt

Morton’s focus on the “End of the World” is part of a broader drift into apocalyptic thinking found across radical social theory more generally. Another thinker to deploy these terms repeatedly is leading Afropessimist Frank Wilderson, who has argued against the prospect of any revolutionary horizon overturning the reliance of the world on anti-Blackness.

While varied in their textures, these strains of thought converge around the need for thorough-going destructive change. It’s easy enough to see why apocalyptic visions have become the default for edgy social theory in the 21st century. There are hardly a surplus of meaningful vehicles for getting us to post-capitalism. In recent years, the electoral left has floundered: social democratic change has stalled everywhere but Kosovo. Those who’ve participated in emancipatory movements are prone to burning out, lapsing into despair of any utopian visions, or even of the more piecemeal proposals that have found themselves thrashed by right-wing “simple answers” or hard-nosed liberalism.

Further, to argue against apocalypse openly always risks seeming naive: surely to deny that The End approaches will always require some dose of wishful thinking?

Equally, there are plenty who quickly dismiss these apocalyptic arguments out of hand, treating them as worth of ridicule rather than serious consideration. (As someone who has argued for the “abolition of the family” I can certainly relate). Rather than brushing them aside, I instead want us to consider that whatever emancipatory aims critical thinkers aim for when they speak of either “world-making” or “destroying the world” can be better reached by revolution.

The word “revolution” may pull to mind armed uprisings, storming ornate gates, and turfing out former rulers from elevated halls. But “revolution” in the sense communists (and other abolitionists) have long used the term has quite another meaning. While smashing heaven (or at least the state) may well be required along the way, it’s as stifling to reduce the abolition of capital to insurrectionary struggles as it would be to view an Apple product solely in terms of its last days—crashing violently whenever you attempt to boot it.

The “social revolution” Marxists have in mind can only be one which extends well beyond doing away with an offending regime and replacing it with a purified order. “Revolution” in the sense we mean it does not consist merely of mounting an uprising, but of abolishing the very foundational categories conventional economics is strung around: wages, money, profits, property, (private) households, and so on.

This process extends well beyond an emancipation by newfound “recognition,” even if it requires the proletariat to develop our consciousness to better serve as history’s executioner (a process which means not merely our affirmation of ourselves as proles, which is for the most part a statement of the obvious, but self-abolition).

It’s exactly at the moment that capital threatens to destroy the innumerable animal species it has always depended upon (including humanity) that we must not forget that its logic is historically bound, rather than the only one possible.

But for the time being, workers are defined not by our hypocrisy but our ever-worsening exhaustion—a fate we share with the planet. We can’t flinch into rendering the historical and logical processes that are leading to the dissolution of human life as natural, and inevitable. My argument here is that holding fast to revolution is something quite other than the two courses promoted by apocalyptic social theory: the opportunism of “we need to avoid this at all costs” and the morbid celebration provided by scholarly hopelessness.

Class war has always strained against human immiseration demanded by the logic of capital, and now it stands as the only way to keep the planet habitable for humanity.

1 Marx: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

2 Those familiar with the history of US imperialism in Latin America will note that I did not pick this example innocently.

3 I appreciate Hypocrite Reader’s Sandow Sinai sharing this view in private correspondence.

4 This isn’t to say that Marx simply leaned on Aristotle re: human as a species, for a detailed examination of how Marx’s political importantly comes from developing a new view of human potentiality, see:
Aaron Jaffe, “From Aristotle to Marx: A Critical Philosophical Anthropology,” Science & Society 80.1, 56–77 (2016)

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. Now, for the first time, we're able to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. Just $3 will go a long way.

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content — leave your email below to hear from us when we publish.