Kingdom of valor and destruction of the world

Image: Ramy Kabalan


Capitalism can lead to irreversible devastation

The specter that haunts the modern world is less and less the possibility of a radically different future, but that of irreversible devastation. The summer of 2021, like the previous ones, is proof of this: devastating floods in Germany, Belgium, London and Japan; temperatures reaching 49,6ºC in Canada (in a place that would normally resemble Britain), 48ºC in Siberia, 50ºC in Iraq; New Delhi went through its worst heat wave in a decade; Madagascar suffers from severe food shortages due to drought; California, Siberia, Turkey and Cyprus are on fire; the Gulf of Mexico is covered by a huge gas leak; the city of Jacobabad, in Pakistan, and the city of Ras Al Khaimah, on the Persian Gulf, were considered uninhabitable due to climate warming; closer to us, fires turned the Var region of southern France to ashes. Climate warming begins to reinforce itself through increased release of greenhouse gases with permafrost melting.

From the sources of abstract social wealth opened up by capital, not only does an enormous amount of merchandise flow, but also its counterpoint: an infinite amount of pollution and other evils. The reign of value, which is nothing less than the destruction of sociability, threatens the foundations of terrestrial existence in general and of humanity in particular – the latter being confronted by the absolute necessity of abolishing the capitalist social form at the risk of to disappear. The contradiction between, on the one hand, the increasingly aggressive imperatives of economic growth and, on the other hand, the finitude of material resources and the inability of the natural environment to absorb the waste and pollutants produced by civilization driven by the capital movement.

It is true, the denial of the ecological crisis, fortunately, has almost disappeared from the world and the alarms have been sounding uninterruptedly for a long time. No person with a minimum of scientific or intellectual credibility still doubts the fact that climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the depletion of natural resources lead us to a catastrophic situation.

No one doubts the fact that the margin we have to carry out structural transformations that can attenuate the course of catastrophe is extremely narrow. But as one climate conference after another fails, the world's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise happily against the backdrop of an imperative for growth that remains unchanged.

It is said, for example, that with the exception of the lows seen during the 2009 recession or, more recently, during the isolation months, world COXNUMX emissions2 continue to increase relentlessly and, according to forecasts, a new world record should be reached in 2023. The results of carbon markets in the fight against climate change could not be worse.

Between 1995 and 2020, from COP3 to COP24 (UN Conference of the Parties), COXNUMX emissions2 increased by more than 60%. The systemic aporia of climate protection that does not call capitalism into question was, involuntarily, announced by the green minister-president of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, in March 2021, when, helpless, he confessed to the press that “ the criticism that we are too slow is true. And that we should change that too. I just wish I knew how to do it.”

Thus, as much as the diagnosis of scientists is increasingly consensual, as much as the awareness of the gravity of the threat is increasingly strong, chaos is widespread and disagreements multiply when it comes to addressing the historical significance of the socioecological crisis . The fierce political battles over how to respond to this bear witness to a false unanimity and a persistent failure to identify the principle behind this trajectory.

The word “Anthropocene” has become, in recent years, the main environmental concept to explain such a situation, being particularly popular in the natural and social sciences. Proposed in 2002 by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Paul Crutzen, it intends to encompass the globalized disruption of planetary natural cycles, which emerged with the invention of the steam engine in the first industrial revolution, and designates a new “geological age dominated by man” that succeeds the Holocene which, in turn, followed the last ice age (the Pleistocene) 11.500 years ago.

In this Anthropocene, it is the “human being” – anthropos – which took control of the planet's biogeochemical cycles and would have become a geophysical force. It would have begun to transform the biosphere in such a way that it now threatens the planet's ability to continue the history of life. The disruption of the carbon and nitrogen cycles, or even the massive destruction of biodiversity, lead to irreversible planetary breaking points, quantified by armies of scientists and regularly announced with great fanfare in all major media, hypnotizing some and catastrophizing others. , as we follow the same route.

Nourished by collapsology, some urban and privileged layers of the population begin to suffer an “eco-anxiety” or a “solastalgia” indecently confused with the afflictions of the indigenous populations whose territories are being devastated. The diffusion of these notions completes the picture of impotence and depoliticization, in which the solution for new anxieties would be given in the same way as for behavioral disorders. In short, “learning to live with” and practicing “resilience”.

But if “the geological era dominated by man” leads to a situation in which the existence of the human being could be put at risk, there is something very problematic in the vision about this domination of nature reduced to a “dominated substrate”. After all, there must be something non-human, something “objectifying”, in this type of domination by the “human being” whose result could be, precisely, the extinction of humans. The Anthropocene reveals itself, in the end, as an unplanned, unintentional, uncontrolled rupture, as the secondary effect of a “social metabolism with nature” (Marx) triggered by industrial capitalism and which has become out of control.

This can be easily illustrated by some examples. The burning of fossil fuels, used as fuel by industrial and transport systems, would inevitably disturb the carbon cycle. The massive extraction of carbon began in England during the Industrial Revolution so that, with this new mobile source of energy, industries were able to move from dams towards cities, where cheap labor was found.

There was no conscious intent to manipulate the carbon cycle or to cause climate warming. However, the result was that, in the 350th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had already exceeded the safe limit of 62 ppm, indispensable for the perpetuity of human life in the long term. The nitrogen cycle was also disturbed by the industrialization of agriculture and the production of fertilizers, based on the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by the Haber-Bosch process. The annual limit of 150 million tonnes of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere has already been greatly exceeded, with 2014 million tonnes extracted in XNUMX.

No one had consciously planned for it, nor had the eutrophication of lakes and the collapse of ecosystems been planned. The same story applies to the loss of biodiversity, the disruption of the phosphorus cycle or the acidification of the oceans. In this regard, "the human-dominated geological age" seems more like an unconscious product of chance than the development of a capacity to control planetary biogeophysical cycles, despite Crtuzen's reference to Vernadsky and Tailhard de Chardin, which sought to "extend consciousness and thought" and "the world of thought" (the noosphere). “They don't know it, but they do it” – this is what Marx says about social activity fetishized and mediated by commodities, an activity that must be seen as the key to a critical understanding of the Anthropocene.

Despite this, talking about chance and unconsciousness does not mean exempting responsibilities. Who is this anthropos, this human being from the discourses on the Anthropocene? Would it be a human species in general, in an undifferentiated form, humanity taken not only as a whole (which does not exist), but also abstracted from all concrete historical determinations? This immense conceptual inaccuracy allows, especially, to justify climate geoengineering – proposed by Paul Crutzen – or, even, the ideologies of sustainable development, of the circular economy that practices the hunt for particular waste, or neo-Malthusianism, which considers the demography of peripheral countries the cause of the problem. In this way, the anthropos he continues to be the one who destroys, but also repairs, and we preserve the double figure of progress, at once Promethean and demonic, inherited from the first industrial age and the Enlightenment.

Placing the responsibility on a humanity that is, in fact, responsible and impacted unevenly, the notion of Anthropocene provokes uneasiness and raises numerous discussions about historical “levels” and terminological negotiations, with each one proposing its own way of thinking. name the agent and patient of the disaster. Donna Haraway replaces this notion with the term Plantationocene, to point to the colonization of the Americas as the marker of this new era and, more recently, the term Chthulucene to invite us to “inhabit the problem”, that is, to invest in the ruins: “we are all compost”, says Haraway. There is no better way to aestheticize the catastrophe and dilute the responsibility of this recent situation in the great bacterial history of planet Earth.

All these conceptual attempts miss the opportunity to problematize the origin of this transformation, as well as the subject that carries it out. Would the same apply to the term “capitalocene”, proposed by Andreas Malm or Jason Moore, to try to account for the limits of the notion of anthropocene? The notion of “fossil capital”, developed by Malm from historical materials that demonstrate the historical coincidence of the development of industrial capitalism with that of fossil energies, leads to the curious figure of an Anthropocene in which the agents would be fossil energies and those responsible would be those who, even today, continue to defend the use of these energies. The obvious solution would be to stop using them.

In general, a portion of an exhausted Marxism has been recycled over the last twenty years into an ecosocialism that has not abandoned the dogma of the “development of the productive forces”: we should dedicate ourselves body and soul to the production of solar panels and wind turbines and start property from the clutches of the capitalists who cling to their carbon-filled chimneys and their oil wells and pipelines. This leads to a conception that is not only “Leninist”, but lenitive, of “renewable energies”. It is, in fact, from them that Malm and the ecosocialists expect ecological salvation – in perfect congruence with the official discourses that promise a green and sustainable future without saying anything about the extractive intensification and the increase in the devastation caused by mining that it implies.

Meanwhile, Total Energy he plays in both camps, green and fossil, while Joe Biden, with his famous statements that he would reinstate the Paris Accords, signs more oil drilling permits in a period of one year than Donald Trump in four. It is also increasingly well documented to what extent renewable energies are not only the source of real devastation, but just add to the global trajectory without causing any inflection. Without acquitting the “elites” of the part they have in this double language, we should ask ourselves about the nature of this blind compulsion that knows no interruption and seems to lead us inexorably to hell, while the youth, revolted by the inertia of the system, seeks to put pressure on the parliamentary debate, at the risk of reinforcing technical management and adaptation to the disaster.

Many are those – and not just the experts – who are also convinced that a happy mix of technocracy, decarbonization of the economy, geoengineering, energy transition, small ecological gestures, goodwill and commercial innovation will be enough to carry out the “transition” in towards a new green capitalism. In fact, the latter is more engaged in the path of a permanent state of exception in which everyone will be willing to compete to prolong the agony. And the afflictions and commitments of ordinary subjects are as decisive an element in this social form as those who make the decisions, who are in charge of the modern political form of representing the fundamental task: growth. All function bearers are involved in the same form of social relationship about which they try not to care and for which they blame each other.

This is how, with the advance of the ecological crisis, anguish also seizes those who, not so long ago, still denied the reality of climate change: the entire political spectrum is now bewitched by the “climate urgency” in front of a besieged electorate. Even the extreme right has begun to accommodate ecology in its favorite themes. Neo-Malthusianism, social Darwinism, armed defense of territories and national identity, survivalism, acts of terrorism with an ecological vocation: these trends that are accumulating point to the neo-fascistization of a layer of society that is the front end of cross-cutting political trends. The construction of walls and the abandonment of superfluous populations no longer deserve even a worldwide justification and are trivialized in the midst of indifference.

Meanwhile, some lose their voices screaming, preaching human values ​​and campaigning for the recognition of the crime of ecocide or the “rights” attributed to natural entities within the framework of the bourgeois political form. The biocentrism that until recently characterized deep ecology has, over the years, become the entrepreneurial capital of an anti-speciesist ecology, sometimes associated with veganism, passionate about conservation and restoration of nature. A nature transformed into a spectacle in which indigenous occupants are evacuated or persecuted; a nature often unknown to its promoters, as shown, among others, by Charles Stepanoff and Guillaume Blanc in their recent works.

Because the modern naturalist ontology is inseparable from capitalism and, therefore, is also found in the affirmative ideologies of crisis. The modern concept of “nature” is entirely shaped by the commodity form and the bourgeois subject-form. Modern natural sciences, since Immanuel Kant, presupposed a purely formal subject, identical to itself, capable of synthesizing the manifold of sensible intuition. This abstract subject remained independent of empiricism and assumed nature as a radical exteriority that should be questioned.

This modern subjectivation institutes a subject-object duality and a purely separate nature that are not independent of the process of valuing value. It also institutes an abstract time and a homogeneous space that must be quantified in view of its domination. Modern “nature” was subjected to a mathematization logic that allowed, among other things, to reduce the non-human to the state of an exploitable resource, composing constant capital. In the same way, working time must be measured, its concrete quality is denied in view of its rational management and the extraction of relative surplus value.

The common point between the natural sciences and the economic sciences is their tendency to systematically quantify what is, however, heterogeneous to the quantitative order: they are incapable of considering what remains non-identical to the homogeneous forms of rationality and production modern, that is, the suffering of conscious and sentient living beings, the qualitative content of abstract form.

Variable capital and constant capital, equally constituted by living and suffering individuals, are returned to the status of valuable and quantifiable resources in a production process that naturalizes and reifies them. It is exactly the ecologically destructive technologies that transform living labor into something more and more superfluous. While capital makes labor time the source and measure of all wealth, it tends to reduce this productive labor time to an increasingly precarious minimum. This contradiction is at the heart of every subject of capital. The whole horror of capitalism ultimately lies in the fact that nobody is behind the curtains pulling the strings.

No one controls capital's valorization movement on the scale of world society: it unfolds through the intermediary of the market, as a process through which money must become more money through the production and consumption of commodities. Even the most powerful capitalists are coerced into this – what Karl Marx summed up in the concept of social fetishism. Responsibility for damages cannot be assigned solely based on the class identity of individuals, but through the analysis of a more or less consented identification of each one to the capitalist way of life.

Capitalism mobilizes the natural sciences to establish a solipsistic and narcissistic subject who must present himself “as lord and possessor of nature” (Descartes). Modern natural sciences technically fabricate their experiments constituting a homogeneous nature to mathematical calculation. It is not disordered and qualitative “nature” that they thematize, but a technically elaborated, purified nature, determined by an abstract subject identical to itself. Just as techniques imply, in production, a real subsumption of concrete labor under abstract labor, there is an even more real subsumption of nature under value. This is how the logic of competition and the logic of extracting relative surplus value increasingly drove the automation of production, until the recent microelectronic revolution (1970-80), to the point of destroying the planet more and more, but also to the point of point of engaging capitalism in an irreversible process of desubstantialization of value.

The external (ecological crisis) and internal (economic crisis) limits of capitalism are subtly intertwined, as shown by the “fragment about the machines” of the floorplans. Likewise, the overcoming of capitalism will not be achieved through the intermediary of “positive” science or economics. A critical thought that calls into question the hegemony of calculation and quantity, and that thematizes the suffering and desires of subjects in their irreducible dimension, will also be able to criticize the fetishist-mercantile inversion between abstract and concrete, means and end.

The solipsist subject who carries out the natural-capitalist project is, structurally, the male, western, white subject. Natural science, which technically builds a quantifiable nature modeled by the commodity form, also consolidates sexual dissociation. The “formless” and “chaotic” nature that must be framed and disciplined has been associated (since Bacon) with the feminine. As Roswita Scholz (1992) explains, the dissociation of form and content is a sex-specific dissociation. Within modern sexual dissociation, the value form concerns the subject of competition, competitive, rational, enlightened, who is typically a male subject, while the irrational content, which can refer to sensitivity, care, the reproductive sphere and the eroticism is associated with the female (non)subject.

This structure of decoupling is inseparable from a modern disengaged economy, which functionally separates the spheres of (male) value production and (female) private reproduction. The domination of external nature is inseparable from the domination of an inferior, feminized nature, declared as sensitive, formless and irrational. Similarly, indigenous peoples are not considered to have the critical rationality that prevails with Kant and the Enlightenment. Naturalism then imposes itself as a true excluding unit and as a divided totality. Therefore, we would not be able to rigidly distinguish the history of colonial overexploitation from the problems associated with the domination of “external” nature, since it is the same abstract subject that develops, in modernity, this multidimensional capitalist naturalism.

Therefore, the critique of the destruction of life today presupposes a radical critique of the positive sciences and modern techniques, but also the understanding of an intimate connection between the ecological, social and economic crises. It also presupposes a critique of commodity-producing patriarchy and a structural, naturalizing racism. Today, specializations and compartmentalizations prevent multidimensional phenomena from being perceived. These theoretical specializations are a reflection of the capitalist division of labor, and are, in themselves, alienated.

As Kurz announces in the first chapter of the book The Substance of Capital, it is not the fact of criticizing the totality that is totalitarian. This is because the destructive value is precisely this (split) totality, and it is this totality that absolutely needs to be criticized. The critique of the capitalist totality does not seek to impose this totality to the detriment of the non-identical – as postmodern thought censures it – but it intends to raise the critique to the height of the totalitarianism of form. A dispersed or fragmented “criticism” reproduces the separations and isolations of the positive sciences which themselves remain within the borders imposed by the modern division of labor.

The critique of capitalism cannot adopt the naturalist and vitalist perspective that is the foundation of modernity. It does not seek to save an idealized “nature”, nor an idealized “humanity” as a species, and even less a capitalism that conceives itself as a force of nature. It must not be allied with the different political variations of this naturalism whose contradictions tend to be overcome through an increasingly totalitarian management of life, health and population. This criticism is based, on the contrary, on an epistemology of nature that takes into account the fact that we can only speak of it in a secondary position and that the way to defend nature is to defend a truly human society.

Critically establishing the conditions for society's emancipation is the only possible path towards a radical ecology, even if, in the face of the urgency and the advance of catastrophes, many want to take refuge in the crisis ideologies we have just discussed. The epistemological critique of the concept of nature represents a theoretical deviation that is neither a mere refinement nor “wasted time for the urgency of action”, but which, on the contrary, considers the status of “second nature”. It also seeks to articulate the Marxian critique of political economy with a critique of technologies, sciences and productive forces.

*Sandrine Aumercier is a psychoanalyst. She is the author, among other books, of Capitalism in Quarantine: Notes on the Global Crisis in 2020 (Elefante).

*Benoît Bohy-Bunel is a philosopher. Author, among other books, of Symptomes contemporains du capitalisme spectaculaire (Paperback).

*Clément Homs is editor of the Palim Psao website and the magazine Jaggernaut

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Editorial of the 4th edition of the French magazine Jaggernaut.

Originally published on the website Palim Psao.

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