Archive for necrocapitalism


Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , on May 24, 2020 by Magadh

No dawn whitened the dead sky. The blast furnaces along flamed, and the coke ovens, making the darkness redder without illuminating the unknown. And the Voreux, at the bottom of its hole, with its posture as of an evil beast, continued to crunch, breathing with a heavier and slower respiration, troubled by its painful digestion of human flesh.

        Émile Zola, Germinal

We are living in an era of necrocapitalism. In an important sense, we have always lived in it because, at its base, capitalism is about the conversion of life into power. Much of the superstructure of the political-economic order that has colonized the globe in the last four centuries has been devoted to obscuring this fact. But the narrative of capitalism as a technology of human thriving and progress has been torn away by the global pandemic. For the moment it has become painfully obvious that the emperor is naked, although his power remains considerable.

Under what might at this point be characterized as normal circumstances, capitalism functions on compulsion. The production of surplus value requires workers to be forced by the threat of starvation to enter into voluntary agreements whereby they give up a certain proportion of their life energy in the form of labor time in return for a portion of the value created. The transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production was accompanied by repeated waves of pressure applied by owners of capital to create a mass of disempowered potential sellers of labor power susceptible to such compulsion.

The degree to which the maintenance and increase of pools of capital takes priority over the well-being of the providers of labor power can be seen in myriad ways across the long history of capitalism. From the misery, dislocation, and occasional starvation caused by the enclosure movement beginning in the 1400s (and reaching its peak in the early years of the Industrial Revolution) to workers in electronics factories topping themselves due to overwork, the underlying imperative of capitalism has remained unchanged from its earliest days to the era of its maturity: eat people.

For workers in industrial or agricultural capitalist economies, there has always been a dimension of threat to life over and above that posed by the overt workings of the system. Capitalism in the early 19th and 20th centuries explicitly espoused the proposition that workers should be paid only as much as necessary to keep them alive and punching the clock every day. Some jobs had the more immediate prospect of lethality in the short or long term (coal mining being a particularly egregious example). When this fact was acknowledged it was generally factored away with the application of Horatio Alger myths when the naked power of capitalists over life and death was not simply and openly acknowledged.

With the rise of the trade union movement, the discursive integument of legitimation of these processes was transformed. In the era of rising workers’ power and consciousness, employers were often forced into changes in approach. The power of organized labor compelled rises in wages, the creation of accident insurance, and provisions for the lives of workers who survived to old age. The possibility that workers my die as a result of participation in the work process was viewed as an outcome worth avoiding rather than one of those things like the weather or the migration of birds that are subject to the vagaries of nature.

The decades after the end of the Second World War were the high point of this process. Extensive unionization and economic growth masked the underlying tendency of the system to consume the lives of workers. This has all changed in the last half-century. The end of the postwar boom and the rise of an economy characterized by an increasing degree of financialization and declining job growth (due in large part to global productive overcapacity and to a lesser degree by the spread of automation) the power of workers to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of capitalist production have diminished considerably.

In his seminal article “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe analyzed both European colonialism and the function of the modern war-making state in terms of the concept of “necropower.” Starting from Foucault’s critical account of the concept of sovereignty as developed in his 1975-6 lecture course at the College de France, Mbembe argued that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides…in the power and capacity to decide who may live and who must die.” Generally speaking, appropriations of Mbembe’s work have followed his original project of mode of sovereignty in colonial, decolonizing, and post-colonial environments.


In times of crisis, the linkages connecting the colonial and post-colonial zones and the metropole are cast in relief. In addition to the relations of exploitation and subordination that constitute what might be called the public face of the colonial relationship, the system as a whole is comprised within an integument of capitalist relations of production. Modes of production and reproduction across all nodes of the world system share the need to consume human life. That this fact is often more or less disguised by consumerism and media spectacle does not in the least alter the fact that capitalism is, at its root, necrocapitalism.

Thus, the advent of COVID-19 and the challenges it has posed to the normal functioning of important elements of the capitalist system have cast the necropolitical dimension inherent in that system in relief. Some parts of the system, particularly those related to financial markets, are only influenced in second order ways. There it is a matter of increased market volatility and the need to parse and predict what effects that disruptions in the production and circulation of commodities will project into the markets for real estate, insurance, and equities, as well as for more exotic financial instruments.

Necrocapitalism manifests in deferent ways in different places. The distribution of these manifestations constitutes the nomos of the neoliberal order. In some cases, the requirement of producing as backed up by an immediate threat of force. Spaces in which this mode of organization predominates have provided ideal havens for processes organized along the lines of what David Harvey referred to as the spatio-temporal fix. The displacement of productive processes into zones in which the state operates directly, either facilitating or actually undertaking itself the role of organizer or physical compeller of labor discipline and compliance. This allows capitalist production to operate more seamlessly even under conditions of extreme wealth concentration and global overcapacity in terms of productive units.

The ecology of capital reproduction in the so-called more developed economies of the EU and North America differs in important ways. In the financial sector, as well as in sectors mostly based on intellectual labor, the possibilities for conduction affairs from remote locations is greater. The effects of coronavirus on processes in the sectors of the economy centered on material production and service provision are more profound and immediate. In those lines in which physical presence is required, the disruption caused by coronavirus has a profoundly destructive effect on capital accumulation.

The role of government in providing institutional structures and guarantees for spaces of capital reproduction in these latter areas tends to be relatively less hands-on. Thus, it is also easier to camouflage the degree to which the underlying driver of the system is the consumption of human life. Capitalism is presented as life-affirming, producing goods necessary for human survival and flourishing and, by a happy coincidence, providing opportunities for work, which is implicitly or explicitly construed is crucial to human happiness and a good in and of itself.

The engagement of a large proportion of the adult population in “productive” labor also serves the end of imbricating them in structures of power that tend to keep them socially integrated and politically quiescent. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, so the old saying goes, and forestalling the formation of malign intentions toward the system is the basis not only for the retention of labor processes that might otherwise be automated but also for the sort of bullshit jobs described so eloquently by David Graeber.

The confluence of impulses of economic necessity and power drive the necessity of reopening the economy, which is currently so much in vogue especially (but not exclusively) on the political right. While the consensus among epidemiologists and healthcare professionals is that the rescinding of lockdown orders and the reopening of retail and industrial workplaces (as well as public spaces generally) as likely to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, major figures in the Republican Party have made these openings their primary demand. The recognition of the likely consequences has led Senator McConnell to state that a second stimulus bill would be out of the question unless it contained provisions indemnifying business owners against the possibility that their workers might either die or spread the disease or both.

One of the more interesting elements of the current politics of the right is the astroturfed political campaigns that have seen maskless armed demonstrators assembling on the grounds of statehouses around the country demand that people be given the right (which in fact means required) to expose themselves to a possibly lethal contagion so that the local greasy spoon or tavern can reopen. The attempt to make this appear as a groundswell from below rather than something funded and promoted from above can be read as a recognition of the hesitancy of owners of capital to concede that capitalist accumulation may require the ultimate sacrifice. “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

To be clear, to employ the concept of necrocapitalism is not to assert that capitalism has itself fundamentally changed form. When Lenin and his followers wrote of monopoly capitalism, or when Hilferding wrote of finance capitalism, what was being asserted was that a broad transformation in mode of capital circulation and accumulation had occurred. Necrocapitalism, by contrast, is simply capitalism, but capitalism viewed in terms of the right of owners of capital, imbricated with the sovereignty of the modern state, to compel exposure to death as a means of perpetuating processes of accumulation.

At the same time, this approach to capitalism and state sovereignty does not imply a discrete position on the Marxist conception of the labor theory of value. Recently, some scholars (principally Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler) have argued that capital is merely power and ought not be distinguished analytically. In part, this argument rests on a trenchant critique of the labor theory of value. Irrespective of the outcome of that debate, the sovereign power to appropriate life is a fundamental element of the system whether capital or power is what is being accumulated.

What is clear is that coronavirus is the mirror that flatters not. The healthcare system in the United States, which leads the world in per capita costs without thereby leading the world in positive outcomes, has had its gaps and shortcomings brutally exposed. Not only is the profit-centered infrastructure creaking under the strain, but the practice of linking access to healthcare to employment has been shown for what it truly is: a means of blackmailing value producers into compliance with the needs of capital accumulation.

Meanwhile, the political classes continue to show that they no longer have any compunction about laying bare the actual imperatives of the system. The mayor of Las Vegas offered up her city as a test site for simply opening the economy irrespective of viral spread. Asked if she would be willing to expose her person to the consequences of turning the city into a massive petri dish (and disease vector), she demurred. The president and his cabal have recently been giving out that Americans should consider themselves “warriors” in the struggle to reopen the economy in the face of coronavirus. As usual, the bosses are willing to fight to the last worker in the war of accumulation.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many, the crisis caused by COVID-19 is not winding down. There is every reason to believe that before the end of the year the situation will have become considerably worse as the manic drive to reopen the economy wreaks lethal consequences without thereby creating viable conditions for robust capital accumulation. Given the current structure of political division brewed up in the toxic media ecology of the extreme right, the traditional Marxist view that miserable material conditions and exploitation have the capacity to generate defetishizing critique looks as threadbare as it has at any point since the summer of 1918.

Conditions in the world currently seem calculated to destroy the market for dystopian fiction. Why would one want to read it when there seems every likelihood that one could be living The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road War or The Hunger Games or The Road Warrior (or The Road) at some point in the foreseeable future? In the face of impending (or increasing) dystopia, it is incumbent on the left to forge and promote utopian visions. To this point, the left has specialized in utopias that few outside post-Leninist echo chambers have any inclination to realize. The challenge, then, is to find a viable way out before the roof falls in.


Night Thoughts on Necrocapitalism

Posted in Dispatches, Research Notes with tags , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by Magadh

Revolution is never quite the revolution we want. Lost in the warp and woof of our mingled thoughts, what lies below bubbles up like the contents of a witch’s cauldron. In such moments we are, or should be, reminded of the frailty of the worlds we make. But human arrogance is such that someone is always to blame, generally someone other than ourselves.

COVID-19 is both revolutionary and meaningless. It is no less meaningless for all the manifold attempts to build it into one narrative or another and thus to affix it within the realm of human causality. This is clearly the case in the flailing attempts of the current administration in the United States to build it into a coherent spectacular image. Having failed to nullify it through blunt denial, the administration’s latest tack is to try to make it part of the larger phenomenon of asymmetric warfare between the United States and China, flavored to taste with collaboration by the deep state.

This is one of those elite narratives that is clearly meant for distribution to the desperate and delusional fractions of the petit bourgeoisie who graze on Fox News and support the president with passionate intensity irrespective of his malign, bumbling incompetence. Its mélange of baseless assertions and debunked, paranoid fantasies is so obviously ludicrous that even that those in media and government tasked with doling it out can hardly do so with a straight face.

Beneath the crass politicization of the event lies a deeper reservoir of cathectic energy wherein the virus becomes an element of stories the moral of which ranges from redemption to pure catastrophe. One is here reminded of the televangelist in Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man who reminds his views that “the Lord works in mysterious and often meaningless ways.” To see COVID-19 as the hand of God might be seen as a source of comfort, even if the underlying purposes might escape the bounds of human comprehension. That the virus is the hand of nullity is rather less palatable.

What COVID-19 has done is to cast the contours of capitalism in relief. If the book trade persists in the wake of the crisis, many bytes will be spilled describing the various ways in which this is true. To take only one of the most immediately horrifying examples, coronavirus has given rise to a new variety of proletarianization. On Marx’s view, the defining feature of the proletariat was that its members had nothing to sell but their labor power. The new proletariat of the era of COVID-19 has nothing to sell but their presence.

Capitalism always involves the consumption of human life force. The current age is one in which the owners of capital are simply being rather more honest and open about it. This COVID-19-inspired glasnost was first eminently clear in the statement a month ago by the lieutenant governor of Texas to the effect that grandparents might (perhaps ought to) be willing to risk death in order to allow the economy to function. What might at another moment have been universally viewed as blood-curdlingly profligate with respect to human life read in the current circumstances as mere candor.

Since that time three things have become clear. The first is that the president is bored by the crisis. There is nothing fun or interesting about it. It just goes on and on. The virus doesn’t care about its reputation, can’t be slandered or flattered in the media, just keeps taking off the kind of inconsequential meat sacks who wouldn’t be part of the kind of entertaining synergies of which the president is so fond. And yet their sheer numbers present a problem that persists in sucking the joy out of life.

The second thing to emerge is the desperation of the state governors. Irrespective of political coloration, the inhabitants of the various statehouses are all intimately aware of the prospects for economic ruin presented by the virus. COVID-19 is having a catastrophic effect on the human propensity to truck and barter. Those segments of the economy that subsist most effectively in the current situation, ones involving delivery and little or no face to face contact, tend to generate cosmopolitan pools of capital that end up in bank or brokerage accounts beyond borders of the states (and often of the country).

Even among the most science-friendly among them, the specter of economic collapse creates inherent systemic pressure to do something. It doesn’t help that several are now being harried by astroturfed “protests” involving white guys, many toting long guns, demanding the freedom to die (or to kill others) for a burrito and a beer. It goes without saying that this is a white man’s protest since the consequences for people of color of showing up armed (be it with a gun or a cell phone or a candy bar) in public spaces are often lethal. Be that as it may, the compelling power of tens of protestors waving flags, guns, and the occasional antisemitic slogan on the premises of the state capital can hardly be denied.

Third, and as a consequence of the previous two items, the president’s response to the crisis is to fall back on the nostrums that have served him well in the past. Rather than engage in the unglamorous and tedious work of planning and executing a systematic, national-level program, it is clear that the president wants to stage some sort of macabre competition among the state governors to see who can wager the most human lives on the reopening of the economy. The weeks and months to come present the prospect of The Apprentice: COVID-19 Edition, with state governors playing the role of supplicants seeking the favor of the dear leader.

Rescinding stay at home orders, as many governors now seem intent on doing, will have one of three consequences. It may have no effect since just because businesses are allowed to open doesn’t mean they will actually do so, and even if they do that still doesn’t mean that people will be inclined to take the risk of patronizing them. It may cause a spike in infections and deaths from the virus, over and above the current upward trend. Or it might allow the state economies to function again, thus saving the day. Of these, the first two seem much the most likely outcomes, while prospects for the third seem vanishingly small. But this hasn’t stopped the cold-eyed realists of capitalism from banking that the longshot will actually pay off.

For that to happen, workers have to be made to give up their labor power and to do so on terms that allow for the efficient extraction of surplus-value. This applies particularly to that segment of the workforce whose jobs cannot be done from a remote location. If the hash is going to get slung and the mani-pedis are going to get done, people have to be on-site to do them and it won’t do to have them withholding their labor power merely because of some squeamishness about contracting a potentially fatal illness.

The opening shot in this struggle (or in this intensified phase of it) was the president’s signing of an executive order indemnifying the meat industry against suits by employees sickened in the course of their jobs. The president was very hesitant to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to make supplies necessary to fight the pandemic. But he approached the project of protecting multibillion-dollar corporations from the depredations of their employees with gusto. When a handful of meatpacking plants were forced to close because employees became ill (and some had the temerity to actually croak), the president saw an imminent threat to the timely provision of hamburgers and moved with alacrity to make sure that the risk remained precisely where it belonged: among the proletariat of the physically present.

Congress has since taken up the call. Mitch McConnell has let it be known that no further bailout money will be made available, especially to the states (read as blue states) without some sort of blanket immunity against liability being provided for employers. Exceptions would be made, McConnell intoned, for cases of “gross negligence”. But they will apparently not be made for simply forcing people on the threat of starvation to deal out subs and chicken wings to whoever might care to come by.

There is a certain (admittedly highly contested) view of fascism that sees it as the project of capital to discipline workers. The argument goes that the rising militancy of workers in the late 1920s and 1930s, resulting from the systemic dysfunction of capitalism in the era between the world wars caused those in need of their surplus-value to undertake extreme measures to encourage, or enforce, workers’ compliance. The root causes and fundamental nature of fascism are certainly more complicated than this. Still, the need or desire to keep capitalism functioning smoothly by making participation more or less explicitly compulsory is a common feature of the system in crisis.

Signs of the systemic crisis are easy to see and were visible before the shock of COVID-19. Slow growth and system-wide overcapacity have combined with the concentration of wealth at the top of the income distribution to create turbulence. In part this turbulence has been managed by diversionary tactics: communism, the threat of global jihad, “we have always been at war with China”, the prospect that brown people are coming to take jobs and white women. Trump is the apotheosis of this diversionary spectacle, but he is only an expression of it rather than, in any significant sense, its author.

Viewed in a certain light, the roots of the current political-cultural formation go back to the formation of the republic, and to the slave system that provided the moment of primary accumulation for both Europe and the settler colonies it created. More directly, it’s roots lie in the need for conservatives to find some other basis on which to compete for votes during the economic boom of the postwar decades, which high growth and a (by American standards) healthy welfare state made small-government conservatism a hard sell. The so-called “Southern strategy” and the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign were its harbingers.

Much as this approach has reaped considerable rewards in the last decades, the advent of coronavirus has presented it with new challenges. The consequences of the destruction of the welfare safety net are now clear for all to see and become painfully apparent to people whose jobs are currently unavailable and are likely to be exceptionally dangerous for the foreseeable future. The ramping up of the ludicrous narrative in which COVID-19 was generated in a weapons lab with the goal of destroying the Trump regime is symptomatic of the challenges facing the neoliberal populist project.

The other side of the coin is the chorus off assertions from Republican officials that “there are more important things than living.” These things include (perhaps are limited to) keeping processes of capital accumulation running. The rush to reopen states is a further expression of this, as it amounts to a sort of back door compulsion for people to reassume their positions in the workforce irrespective of whether it is actually safe for them to do so. The mayor of Las Vegas was particularly brazen in this respect, offering up her city as, in effect, a giant Petri dish in which the effects of unrestrained transmission of coronavirus can be studied at closes range.

Sadly, the popular slogan about things that happen in Vegas staying there never held much water, and in the context of the current circumstances is simultaneously brutal and utterly vain. The mayor herself was coy about her own potential exposure, which gives one a little insight into the understanding in conservative circles about the appropriate distribution of risk. Given the stark facts of COVID-19’s propensity to spread via asymptomatic carriers, it may be the case that best friends of the Republicans (those most willing to cast off the shackles of social distancing) will turn out to be its worst enemies, as the curve of contagion takes a further upward course. In any case, the next few months will see a nationwide experiment in necrocapitalism and where that will take matters in anyone’s guess.

So here we are in the revolution, and it is being televised. The danger posed by COVID-19 and the threat it poses to those lacking the political and economic capital necessary to absent themselves from the venues of greatest risk have the capacity to play the role of class consciousness in the classical Marxist system. Certainly, the rules of the game and the imperatives on which it operates will become ever clearer to those placed in the firing line the need to make and sell. But all the neither automatically constitutes a clear understanding of the problem nor the organizational nous to become an agent of change. The future is, if not open, at least more susceptible to fundamental transformation than it has been for the best part of a century.