17 May 2019 — Anti-Capital
[3 August 2019: I’m republishing this essay for those who have missed it because I think it’s really important to read given current events. WB]
When sunlight strikes the Earth several things happen to it. First of all, not all of that sunlight gets to the land and water below the sky. Quite a bit of it is reflected back out in to space by the atmosphere. Most of the sunlight is absorbed as heat by the land, water, and living things. This heat will later be lost again to space as it escapes our atmosphere. Some of the energy of the Sun, however, is transformed in to chemical energy in the bonds between carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants are capable of fixing gaseous carbon in to a solid form. In other words, this energy is stored with us on planet Earth.
Now, plants have been around a long time, and they’ve been gathering and storing the energy of the Sun for many millions of years. This is, of course, said with the caveat that quite a lot of the energy that plants have stored up over the years has, again, escaped in to the atmosphere as radiant heat. However, photosynthesis has been occurring on Earth for a couple of billion years, so the energy of the Sun that has not managed to escape and remains with us here on Earth is quite substantial. This energy is, again, not existing in the form of heat but as a solid mass which can be quite cool to the touch, but nevertheless contains that very same energy from the Sun. I am of course talking about coal, oil, and natural gas, the inheritance left to us by peat bogs and dinosaurs which died before specific types of decompositional bacteria evolved.
Now imagine if you will that the collected billions of years of stored sunlight energy is released again on Earth within only a few hundred years. This is the geological equivalent of an explosion. The industrial revolution, and capitalism more generally, has facilitated and expedited this explosion by unearthing and defiling the bodies of millions of dinosaurs in the pursuit of profit. But the dead, and I don’t mean the dinosaurs, will have their revenge upon the living, and I don’t just mean the capitalists.
That’s the basic science of what is happening climatically speaking, but those are just the ‘stale facts’ that would make us empiricists if we merely observed them. For instance, we know that the chemistry and physics associated with firing a gun are more or less identical across all gun shots. This does not, however, tell us anything beyond a mere description of ballistics and the explosion necessary to propel a bullet. The difference in political content between a police officer’s gun firing a bullet in to a black man in the streets and a Quaker’s rifle firing a bullet in to a slave catcher sent to retrieve their property is immense. So too does the geological explosion contain an important social significance.
For Marx, there were three basic stages of human development, and only at the end stage do we truly reach a human society. In the beginning, humanity found itself at the mercy of nature which we neither understood nor controlled. The millenniums long process of humanity coming to understand and control nature for our own purposes left us in a state whereby we discovered that we neither understood nor controlled ourselves. The productive powers which we had developed to tame nature had gone wild. The process of taming the productive powers which we had created would result in a communist society where humanity would have mastery both of nature, through the previously created productive powers, and of itself, through having control of the conditions which would continue to create humanity.
This has not occurred and the natural world is once again slipping out of our control and understanding. Because we have not yet achieved control and understanding of the productive forces we have created, we only ever had a one-sided control and understanding of nature. Indeed, the productive process of capitalism is not so terribly interested in the physical products manufactured, but in the amount of profit to be achieved by their sale. Take the production of a barrel of oil for instance. The oil is the product right? Wrong. The process of producing a barrel of oil creates far more products than just a barrel of oil, however, because commodities must have both a use-value and a value, the barrel of oil is the sole product of this production process which is capable of realizing a profit. The capitalist will take ownership over the barrel of oil, but not the oil spill. The former, because it is useful, can carry with it the surplus labor time of the worker. The latter, because it is not useful, merely exists as physical reality with no apparent social significance for capitalism. However, an important caveat must be made. Simply because a product is useful does not mean that it will be brought to market. It must also be profitable. Useful products which are unprofitable to sell meet with the same fate that non-useful products do, they’re dumped, burned off, or otherwise disposed of, whatever specific fate they meet turns them in to something which has no apparent social significance for capitalism.
But we know the social significance of these non-commodity products of capitalism. All of the smog, toxic and radioactive waste, and decimation of entire species have a very real impact on human society. All of these are direct products of the production process, yet because they are not commodities capable of serving as a vehicle for surplus value, our understanding of how to control and produce them is far less than our understanding of how to control and produce any other given commodity. In fact, not only are pollutants non-commodity products, they may better be called anti-commodities. Their ‘use-value’ is an anti-use-value (it is generally harmful to the entire human species, this is different from the commodities of weapons of war whereby the weapon wielder is deriving a useful purpose, no one is deriving a use from higher lead concentration in drinking water), and their ‘value’ is a bit more like ‘anti-value’ given that capitalists must sometimes pay costs associated with their levels of pollution. This is not to say that good old regular commodities are not or can not be harmful to human beings, weapons are the most immediate example, but plenty of commodities wind up poisoning the environment through their regular intended use such as pesticides.
I have understated the problem of the geological explosion. If you want to scare yourself go read the above link and this one too. No seriously, go read them both. Suffice it to say that these anti-commodities could very well be the end of humanity as a whole. The production process of commodities tears the workers away from their surplus labor time, the consumption process of anti-commodities kills us all. But again, that the anti-commodities will kill us all is merely a ‘stale fact,’ there is a deeper social significance at work here.
Victims of dengue fever, sometimes called breakbone fever, first fear that they are going to die. Later they fear that they will not die.
Lets be absolutely clear. Capitalism is fucking barbaric. No mode of production has released such generalized human misery and suffering as part of its normal operation. From the bloody repressions that spawned capitalism as it tore the English peasantry from their land, to the African slave trade, to the near complete genocide of Native Americans, to the systemic brutality of colonizing and carving up of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and on and on and on, capitalism has always been most healthy and profitable when humanity is made to endure the most unimaginable of sufferings. But the working-class has never, consciously or unconsciously, ceased its struggle against capitalism. The conscious forms of struggle are those that you are already well aware of, forming unions, going on strike, forming councils, seizing state power, and others. All of these efforts are consciously directed not only at ending capitalism, but improving the conditions of the working-class. But what about when the revolutionaries are tortured, lined up against the wall and shot, when the unionists find themselves on trial and executed, when the strikers are beaten in to submission by the cops? They went back to work and they died, but they didn’t die for nothing. Not only did they go back to work creating commodities, they were also creating the anti-commodities which may yet liberate us from capitalism in a negative sense. They went back to work in unbearable heat and toxic air under constant exposure to carcinogens and other toxic materials, and in this work they began to transform the world to resemble those very same conditions.
The dead will have their revenge.
Every dead English peasant chased from his plot of land and forced in to the factory system, every dead child forced to work 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 hour days in hellish heat and toxic air, every dead wife, mother and daughter forced in to prostitution to stave off starvation just one more day, every dead slave ripped from their homeland and mercilessly beaten and raped in to submission, every dead soldier drafted and placed in to a global abattoir, every dead worker will have their revenge.
They will all of them, every last one of them, have their revenge. They have bided their time patiently, for if the living bourgeoisie think they appropriate the time of the laborer, they have nothing to compare to the amount of time the dead possess. They are all united by their instinctive and primal hatred of the bourgeoisie. A blind hatred that burns white hot even in death. Alone they are nothing, but all together they create a scorching atmosphere like a swarm of bees suffocating a wasp.
“The structure of the world was built by the dead, they were paid in wages, and when the wages were spent and they were dead in the ground, what they had made continued to exist, these cities, roads and factories are their calcified bones.”
Not only are the cities, roads, and factories the bones of the dead, but the rising sea levels, the crushing heat, humidity and drought, the erratic and catastrophic weather patterns, the soon to be nonexistent ice caps, the widespread extinction of insects and plants and animals are also the legacy bequeathed to us by our working-class ancestors.
“As our parents die, we can say truly that their lives were for nothing, that the black earth that is thrown down onto them blacks out our sky.”
Not for nothing did they die. They knew as we do that capitalism is a mode of production which finds its primary product to be human misery, and if we can’t transcend capitalism maybe it is better to be put out of our misery entirely.
“A positive wave of violence and despair began to grow. The outlaw-anarchists shot at the police and blew out their own brains. Others, overpowered before they could fire the last bullet into their own heads, went off sneering to the guillotine. ‘One against all!’ ‘Nothing means anything to me!’ ‘Damn the masters, damn the slaves, and damn me!’ I recognized, in the various newspaper reports, faces I had met or known; I saw the whole of the movement founded by Libertad dragged into the scum of society by a kind of madness; and nobody could do anything about it, least of all myself. The theoreticians, terrified, headed for cover. It was like a collective suicide.”
But are we there, past the point of no return for climate apocalypse, and if we are what does it mean for us communists? We can’t really say just how bad the climate apocalypse is going to be. We can say that it has the potential to wipe us all out, and that if capitalism continues on as it has that our ancestors will liberate us from this vale of tears. The dead haven’t had their revenge quite yet, the living still have time, but the dead won’t wait forever. And the blind hatred of the dead will be worn by us many centuries in to the future, a permanent scar marking the damage rent upon humanity by capitalism, a punishment for not overthrowing capitalism sooner.
So there’s two basic possibilities, either we’ve already passed the event horizon of the black hole that is climate apocalypse, or we haven’t.
In the event that we are not passed that event horizon, we must recognize that we are constantly being pulled towards it. Every worker is still churning out anti-commodities every moment that capitalism continues to function. The question is, does the above theoretical insight offer us new perspectives of struggle? The answer is a resounding no. The struggle to save humanity can only be won through the struggle of the working-class to seize power to create a society whereby production is subordinated to meeting and expanding human need. Only then will we have gained control over the productive processes that we created in order to tame nature. Only then can we begin to understand and control the full productive output of production, not just the parts which can be used to generate a profit. We may yet discover that the ecological damage rent by the bourgeoisie renders it impossible for us to be communists in the sense of promoting the all around development of humanity. The material conditions may be too weak to support such an endeavor. We’ll settle for simply being radical egalitarians rather than communists in this case.
It is worth diverting a little to ponder the question, could capitalism save itself from climate apocalypse through various green energy initiatives or geoengineering strategies, and what should our response be to these attempts? We at Anti-Capital gave our answer a long time ago.
“Now comes the other half, that half that makes it evident that all those who proposed the “rescue” of capital; that all those who couldn’t contemplate the “horror” of the complete implosion of capitalism opted for the greater evil. The total collapse of capitalism, even without any prospect for the development of a revolutionary alternative, is always the lesser evil when we confront the survival of the system.”
Never forget how unbearably cruel and barbaric capitalism is. We must oppose every attempt by the bourgeoisie to gain control over the climate. We are not interested in helping capitalism find new markets through solar power or wind energy. We are very interested in making the bourgeoisie pay for the ecological devastation that they are unleashing upon the world. An example of this may be the demand for oil companies to fund free energy (through wind or solar, denying the potential for market expansion) initiatives overseen and controlled by the affected members of the working-class.
And if there is no hope? If we’ve already crossed the event horizon of the black hole that is climate apocalypse is there any point to struggle forward? The answer remains a resounding yes. If we simply choose to roll over and submit to the impending climate apocalypse, we will do so still living under the tyranny of capital. All of the worst sufferings and miseries will, as always, be concentrated upon the working-class while the bourgeoisie find ways to expire in relative comfort. If we manage to overthrow the bourgeoisie and gain control of our own species-being once more we may have the privilege to collectively experience at least one more human emotion. One more collective human emotion other than the hatred for the bourgeoisie which every worker instinctively feels. As we are knowingly pulled in to the void we will, all of us, collectively know one more feeling. Terror.
That will be the sum total collective emotional experience of the human race. Confusion, confusion at a natural world in which we emerged that we did not understand. Fear, fear of gods and aristocratic lords holding sway over the lands which we worked. Hatred, hatred of the bourgeoisie for all the innumerable cruelties inflicted upon the working-class. And terror, terror at the unavoidable demise of our species as it descends in to the void.