Suicidal evolutionism

Clara Figueiredo, the government's economic summit is taking firm steps, digital photomontage, 2020


What motivates this policy of mass destruction?

Journalist Eliane Brum stated that “the Brazilian population has become a guinea pig — and a large part has undergone (…) an unprecedented experiment in perversion in history”.[I] It alludes to the fact that the current President of the Republic in Brazil has systematically sabotaged control of the coronavirus pandemic since it broke out in early 2020. Yes, but what drives this policy? – here's what you need to ask.

Unprecedented? I don't think so. I do not believe that demonstrations of political perversity of this kind are new. On the contrary, I think they have appeared many other times in modern history. In fact, it is rooted – and this is what we want to show – in capitalism as a mode of production. Although its structural cruelty has been veiled, hidden and gilded, one cannot ignore that it has indelibly marked its entire historical evolution. See: this course was always characterized by the duality “progress and destruction”, with oscillations, but always maintaining an exponential trend.

Destruction is, therefore, a constant note of capitalism and it even came to predominate at certain times. Now, it presents itself in a “naked and raw” form once again in Brazil and is there for everyone to see – even if there are still many who do not want to see it and who, therefore, do not really see it. There are, in addition, others who see it, but deny that there is an alternative. Now, it seems certain that it has now appeared in a notable way in the “so-called beloved, but very mistreated homeland” with the election of Jair Messias Bolsonaro as president of the republic of Brazil, at the end of 2018.

Here we want to investigate the implicit logic of its negationist and perverse policy that is inscribed as a possibility – we will try to show – in the very nature of capitalist sociability. To that end, we now start with a significant event: in April 2020, asked what he had to say about the daily death record, he replied: “So what? Am sorry. What do you want me to do? I am the Messiah, but I don't do miracles”. What is this “so what?” does it say beyond what it means?

Now, this derogatory question expresses, in a very explicit way, a deep contempt for the death of thousands of Brazilians; but beyond that, what is implied in it that is even more shocking? It is a symptom. It is believed here that this macabre policy indicated by the “so what?” expresses an extremist understanding of the world, constantly fueled by paranoid convulsions, but still founded on social impasses. Ultimately, it is a way of thinking that is deeply rooted in the materiality of capital accumulation itself. Because, as we know, the latter occurs and can only occur through the administration of the contradiction between the “drive of life” and the “drive of death” sheltered in the very nature of the human being.

Eliane Brum says in her article that this policy seems to have the objective of “infecting the greatest number of people, as quickly as possible, for the full resumption of economic activities”. Even if such a practical goal is present in the government policy on the judgment screen, it is judged here that it is an immediate expression of something deeper, which manifests itself through a diffuse ideology. This is based on the purging effects of competition, it appeals to a morbid metaphysics of progress. Now, at a first glance, it is seen that this ideology is nourished by the theory of evolution.

As is known, the primary source of the theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin in the context of Biology is found in Classical Political Economy. According to Jay Gould in his The structure of evolutionary theory[ii], this theory was born through the adjusted generalization of a discovery that is already presented in The wealth of nations: I maintain – he says – “that the theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith's economics transferred to nature”. Here is an excerpt from the work of the classical economist in which he is well summarized:

Every individual is continually endeavoring to discover the most advantageous application of all the capital he possesses. Indeed, what the individual has in view is his own advantage, not that of society. However, the pursuit of his own individual advantage, natural or, rather, almost necessarily, leads him to prefer that application which entails the greatest advantages for society (…) , is led as by an invisible hand to further an object which was no part of his intentions.[iii]

The message seems clear, but we need to interpret it even better. But, after all, what do you learn from these theses, which are still part of modern science?

There it is said that the evolutionary process is centered on the individual's struggle to survive and prosper in the environment in which he lives; that it occurs in a decentralized way and is dependent on small advantages; that its course thus depends on small circumstantial changes that occur; that, despite this, individual actions benefit, albeit unintentionally, both the whole of the species and, in this case, society. The logic of this process is given, therefore, by the competition of capitals in Smith's case; but it will appear as competition from biological individuals in the case of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The life of each one prospers – but also turns into death – so that the whole exists, be it society or the ecological niche in which the individuals of the species and the species themselves fight among themselves.

See, now, how this last and somber conclusion is presented by Gould:

(...) a hecatomb of deaths is required to produce the best as an epiphenomenon. Individual organisms engaged in the “struggle for survival” act like companies in competition. Reproductive success becomes analogous to profit – for, even more so than in the human economy, it is not possible to keep it for oneself in nature.

Before moving on, it should be mentioned that the analogy between “profit” and “reproductive success” is apparent. The first is a manifestation of a social substance – abstract work, surplus value –, while the second consists of an occurrence inherent to the reproduction of life. Profit serves capital, which is not a living, ephemeral and finite subject, but a dead, eternal and infinite subject – at least in principle. Capital, as you know, is not human, but a vampire.

In any case, evolution permeates the imagination of modern society and is present in the minds of people in general, as well as in various fields of knowledge, particularly in political economy, including Marx's critique of political economy. But there are several ways of apprehending and judging it, from critics to apologetics. In the case of Smith himself, for example, he reserved the validity of this logic only for the economic sphere. Well, in your Theory of Moral Sentiments[iv], said in his own way that social life fundamentally depends on spontaneous solidarity which is at the base of social life and which founds nations:

Selfish as man may be supposed to be, there are evidently some principles in his nature which make him take an interest in the fortunes of others, and regard their happiness as necessary to himself, though he derives nothing from it but the pleasure of attending to it. Of this kind is pity, or compassion, compassion, the emotion we feel at the misfortune of others, either when we see it or when we are led to imagine it very vividly.

In the case of Darwin himself, it is known that he rejected the very idea that natural selection could be associated with a necessary progress of the species or of the ecological niche in which several species co-evolve. Moreover, he did not fail to notice that competition presupposes a common existence, a certain mutualism that delimits its scope in the process of life. Although he admitted that the principles of evolution also applied to society, he did not postulate that the social or even the economic could be explained in biological terms alone. It is quite evident, however, that Smith's invisible hand argument is tricky: the unintended results of intentional actions can eventually be harmful or even deleterious to social life and the development of civilization. And this Darwin knew.

Smith's undue extrapolation already shows how the idea of ​​evolution and even the theory of evolution lend themselves to support ideologies that defend the benefit of unrestricted competition, as well as the purgatory character of progress. They are based on a supposed progressive well-being that market competition always engenders. The theory of evolution, ideologically apprehended, therefore, is at the origin of certain rationalizations that are very influential in modern society.

This type of argument even found apologists who not only idealized markets – seen as the place of peaceful cooperation between private owners – but also saw the State as an enemy of progress. Jumping two hundred years ahead of Smith, one can read certain ideas about prodigious markets, for example, in the writings of the neoliberal Murray Rothbard.

Em The Anatomy of the State[v], for example, this author says that “state power is the parasitic and coercive takeover of production” generated by “social power” (…) “for the benefit of unproductive rulers”. Now, in this way, he does not take into account that mutuality – Smith's spontaneous community– is incessantly undermined by mercantile competition and by the deadly struggles that it itself fosters and engenders. So that there is no disaggregation, the State is there as that instance of society that produces and guarantees its apparent cohesion, its supposed normality. The coercion of the capitalist State is exercised not only on the workers, but also on the capitalists themselves, but in the interests of capitalists in general, that is, of capitalists as the ruling class. Without this coercion, without the legal normativity that shapes it, mercantile anarchy, the battle of all against all, the class struggle, would turn society into chaos.

The functionality of this extrapolation was reinforced when Herbert Spencer, in his book Social Static 1850[vi], created the term “survival of the fittest” to synthesize the process of natural selection exposed in Darwin’s theory of evolution. This author, in addition, also excessively and unjustifiably formulated a teleological theory of progress. More than that, based on this notion, he built a true modern cosmology. Thus, it expanded the concept of evolution as an end and even as a destination, inscribed in the process of passing from the simple to the complex, from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, so that it encompassed the evolution of the physical world, the biological sphere, the human mind, culture and of society.

Spencer thus became a kind of symbolic father of what came to be called “social Darwinism” – an imprecise term that does not designate a well-defined sociological conception and which, incidentally, does Darwin an injustice. In fact, if it seems possible to find traces of it in the works of Thomas Malthus, Spencer himself, Friedrich Nietzsche, Francis Galton, among others, it also seems impossible to delineate and identify it with a certain rigor based on the writings of these authors. In fact, the term “social Darwinism” refers to a pervasive ideology that emerged in Western capitalist countries, particularly in the last third of the XNUMXth century. Its characteristic trait consists in the application of the notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest in the formulation of elitist – or even reactionary – worldviews of the evolution of society, economy and politics.

The most permanent feature of “social Darwinism” is denoted by its ability to justify the wealth and power of the strongest against the poverty and servitude of the weakest. As a principle of morality – and thus also as an ideology – it manifests itself in certain liberal worldviews that emphasize competition between individuals driven by self-interest, as well as capitalism under conditions of laissez-faire, but also in corporate worldviews centered on defending certain national, racial, and sexual advantages.

If in the first case it gives special support to the concentration of income and wealth, to colonialism, to imperialism, in the second case it provides an ideological basis for xenophobic nationalism, for structural racism and even for eugenics and genocide. In one case as in the other, it supports the forms of modern totalitarianism based on the predominance of markets and/or the nation, whether it presents itself implicitly or explicitly, under the various designations such as fascism, neoliberalism, neofascism, etc.

The “social Darwinisms” – this is what is sustained here –, in their different particular forms, are nothing more than ideological expressions of the logic of capital accumulation, of the self-movement of capital, whether the latter is decentralized or centralized. They are manifestations in the social imaginary of the “law” of the survival of the fittest, which is inscribed in the competition of capital, which first appeared in the XNUMXth to XNUMXth centuries, but which, from then on, tended to spread to the rest of the world. society as a whole: neoliberalism is nothing more than the ultimate development of this logic of progress through the competition of individuals as human capital and of capital themselves.

In its classic form, the logic of competition shaped what is generically called liberal capitalism. This political doctrine – even if it is not reduced to that – expresses the perennial competition of private capital, the forms that the latter assumes historically in certain situations and specific historical conjunctures. This fight of “enemy brothers” takes place, as we know, through a dispute between companies in which those that are more effective and efficient in the real subsumption of work to capital, in the exploitation of workers, even if also in the use of the means of production. In any case, the subsumption of labor to capital is the essential foundation of the logic of competition that permeates modern society.

Now, the forms of this subsumption are not restricted to those described by Karl Marx in The capital it is us floorplans. And, in the task of apprehending them, the critique of political economy needs – and this is nothing new – to broaden its scope by accepting contributions from critical sociology and psychoanalysis. For, in the course of the development of capitalism, the subsumption of work to capital extrapolated the material sphere of subordination of the body/mind of the worker to the factory system, as found in the works of this author, starting to focus emphatically on the mental sphere or worker's intellectual property as a population and not just within the scope of private and state, capitalist or “socialist” companies. It became, therefore, for this very reason, a theme of the sphere of power, macropolitics.

In any case, capital, as has already been said, is a vampire that transforms living labor into dead labor, thus configuring the internal dynamics of the capitalist mode of production. And that, as a compulsive subject, operates and has to operate through the non-eliminable contradiction between the drive for life and the drive for death that moves human beings in society, as well as – more broadly – ​​living beings in general.[vii]The subsumption of work to capital is the subsumption of the living to the dead, of the finite to the infinite as a process of insatiable expansion. For this very reason, this subsumption necessarily implies the consumption and exhaustion of the worker as a perishable living being, in such a way that it does not even exclude his extermination when this alternative becomes necessary. Even a massive genocide can be the product of its macabre logic.

It should be noted that life and death are configured as determined negations of one another: the living opposes the dead by setting and maintaining a process, but cannot help but transform itself into it, through a negation of negation. Now, this real dialectic is imprisoned in capitalism by the logic of capital accumulation, which consists of transforming money into more money, through the extraction of surplus value produced by the operation of the living labor force, which, thus, dies little by little from so much work for someone else – and not for yourself in the first place.

If the contradiction between the impulses of life and death cannot be eliminated in itself, this does not imply that its capture by the capital relation cannot be superseded. It cannot be admitted, in the name of the ethics of life itself, that it will prosper indefinitely, especially when it now starts to threaten humanity as a whole. It is therefore necessary to create a new metabolism between man and nature capable of allowing what is impossible under capitalism, that is, a truly sustainable evolution.

It is in this theoretical perspective – it is believed here – that one should see necropolitics and suicide, a theme that was treated with talent and depth by Vladimir Safatle in Beyond necropolitics.[viii]Here is how he distinguishes one from the other: in necropolitical administration, the State acts as a protector of certain classes and as a predator of others, aiming to paralyze the class struggle in colonial enterprises; in suicide management, however, it completely abandons its protective nature, in such a way that “the logic of the predatory state generalizes to the integrity of the social body” – and this occurs “even if not all parts of this body are at the same level of vulnerability”. There, we see, he deals with these issues from the perspective of the critique of biopolitics, but here he prefers to start from the critique of political economy.

From the outset, it should be noted that the idea of ​​a suicidal state management seems excessive and even implausible: why would the State, as an instance that forms unity, of national identity, destroy society? The issue posed by this doubt – it is believed – is resolved when one starts from the thesis that the State is also a social form in capitalism. It cannot be conceived either from the point of view of the bourgeoisie's domination over the workers, or directly from the contradiction between these social classes.

It must be derived, according to Ruy Fausto, from the “contradiction between the appearance and the essence of the capitalist mode of production”.[ix] In appearance, there are no classes, only individuals – and these are immense in a process of institutionally regulated competition; class struggles – as well as all the antagonisms that are inherent to this sociability– are structural, they form its essence. Its disruptive force derives from the nature of the capital relationship itself – from the relationship between capital and labor, but also from the relationships between private capitals themselves – and even from the relationships between workers themselves. This structure of relationships determines positions that compete with each other, generating struggles and antagonisms that do not deepen because of State intervention.

The State as a social form consists, therefore, in the negation of contradictions; it exists as such precisely to establish the unity of the system – not to promote its dissolution. It is, as Fausto says, the guardian of the unity of the system, the regulator of conflicts, the sealer of contradictions between classes, the promoter of the nation: “the State, as a balancing force in the system, competes with the internal counter-tendencies of civil society, to delay or prevent the collapse of the system”.

Well, if that's the case, then how can one explain the suicidal evolution that is actually currently observed in certain developments of capitalism, particularly in Brazil? Now this explanation can only be found in the nature of the capital relation. In certain historical circumstances, the tension that this relationship maintains with the State itself is aggravated. The coercions that come from it then seem more and more intolerable for all those who personify private capital within civil society. A struggle then develops to undermine the very power of the State. But then why is this exasperation happening now?

Necropolitics occurs when capital encounters external barriers – pre-capitalist modes of production – that impede its development; as already pointed out, it overcomes them through colonialism. The suicidal tendency can only come, therefore, from internal barriers that arise in the very development of capitalism. Behold, as Marx himself says “the true barrier of capitalist production is capital itself”; he “constantly seeks to overcome these barriers that are immanent to him, but he only overcomes them by means that put these barriers before him again and on a more powerful scale”.[X]

The answer to the question at the end of the previous paragraph can therefore only be answered by examining how capital overcomes these barriers. How do you do it? The general answer to this question was formulated by Marx himself: through crises, because crises are recurrent eruptions that restore the conditions of accumulation that have been undermined by the process of accumulation itself. As a general rule, in crises, there is a devaluation of accumulated capital, a tightening of workers' living conditions, and deepening destruction of nature. In any case, without a massive destruction of accumulated capital, the rate of profit does not recover and, thus, the system tends to fall into a prolonged depression, into a “secular stagnation”, as the system's own economists seem to recognize.

It so happens that, now, capitalism is no longer facing barriers that it can overcome even if it calls for great social and environmental damage, but truly insurmountable limits: emotional exhaustion of workers, enormous concentration of wealth and income, collapse of the natural environment, radically labor-saving, inability to create “good” jobs, etc. Furthermore, the systemic downturn that a recovering, but uncontrolled, crisis could produce is now immense – and, therefore, unbearable. The endless accumulation of fictitious capital – increasingly unpayable debts that continue to be supported by central banks – is an expression of this impasse.

Now, in a country like Brazil that abandoned developmentalism in 1990 to adopt a peripheral liberal pattern of growth, through a subordinated insertion in the world economy, all of this is very aggravated. After three decades of deindustrialization, reprimarization and financialization, it has established itself as a laboratory for the deepening of neoliberalism.

The answer that has been given on the economic, legal and political planes, under the labels of neoliberalism, cultural reactionism and/or neofascism – calls for an endless liberation of competition even if this implies the decomposition of capitalist sociability. Even if it is in the form of a self-deception, the prodigious power of the markets is invoked: he and only he – it is maintained – will bring about the desired economic growth. This requires a weakening or even deactivation of the State as a cohesive power inherent and necessary to capitalist sociability – even if its repressive apparatus is maintained and reinforced. The implemented policies undermine civilization and do not stop even before the extermination of the population itself.

Here I dare to call this process of decomposition of the existing sociability of suicidal evolutionism.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of Complexity and praxis (Pleiad).


[I] Brum, Eliane – Covid-19 is under Bolsonaro’s control. El País, 2/03/2021.

[ii] Gould, Stephen Jay- The structure of evolutionary theory. Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 122-123.

[iii] Smith, Adam- The wealth of nations - Inquiry into its nature and causes. April Cultural, 1983, p. 378-379.

[iv]Smith, Adam- Theory of Moral Sentiments. Martins Fontes, 2015.

[v] See Rothbard, Murray H. – Anatomy of the State. LVM: 2018.

[vi]Translation (undated and without publisher) of part of the first book published by this author, in 1850: Spencer, Herbert – Social Statistics. Freedom Press, 1913. This partial translation of the original text can be found on Amazon as the title of Principles of Biology.

[vii]Pavón-Cuéllar teaches that, according to Sigmund Freud, “the drive for life is nothing more than a detour and a detour around the drive for death” and that, therefore, “the social subject is always a wanderer between the drive for life and the death drive”; moreover, according to him, this dialectical concept is necessary “to explain without excusing the deadly functioning of the capital vampire”. In this perspective, Marx's socialism consists in the search for a new way of realizing this dialectic, a way that depends only on freely organized workers. See Pavón-Cuéllar, David – Freudo-Marxism and death pulsion. Author's blog, December 2020.

[viii] Safatle, Vladimir – Beyond necropolitics. Place the earth is round, 23/10/2020.

[ix] Fausto, Ruy – Marx: Logic and Politics. Volume II. Brasiliense, 1987, p. 287-329.

[X] Marx, Carl – Capital – Critique of Political Economy. Book III. Abril Cultural, 1983, p. 189.

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