Against Capital: The Current Crisis and the Crisis in Theory

This is the first installment of what I expect will be a very long-running serialization of my Summa Theologiae et Politicae: Against Capital. This will be my major systematic work and, over the course of what will likely be several volumes will explore what it means to be, and especially what it means to be human, in the light of our desire for Being and the current crisis of the human civilizational project.  I invite you to become an active participant in shaping this work by sharing your questions, comments, and critiques. 

Humanity stands at a critical juncture. We can continue down our current road, the capitalist road, and watch as the planet is rendered uninhabitable by climate change, resource depletion, and the toxic waste generated by the combustion of the planet by industrial technology and as human civilization is destroyed by the capitalist combustion of human capacities and human relationships. Humanity will be either fully instrumentalized as a tool of Capital or displaced by machine intelligence, or both, and the planet will belong to Capital: not the historic human bourgeoisie, with all its many vices but also many human virtues, but rather to the emergent autonomous intelligence running like software on the hardware of humanity and its artifacts. And Capital, like a great asura, will do the only thing it knows how to do. It will attempt a tragically misunderstood and impossible theosis:  a pure productivity without consumption. This is the spiritual and civilizational ideal of capitalism, prefigured the Reformed doctrine disinterested benevolence, and analyzed so brilliantly by Weber in the Protestant Ethic (Weber 1920/1968). But it is quite impossible. Thermodynamics will make certain that. And what will be left instead will be nothing but pure combustion.

We can continue down our present pathway or we can chart a new one. But for this latter task our existing theory is nowhere near adequate. Marx (Marx 1867/1996), while he opened up the the field of Capital for scientific investigation, had only a very limited experience of Capital and thus only a very limited vision of what it would become. Dialectical and historical materialism and critical theory have extended Marx’s analysis, interpretation, and critique, but they remain in many ways the science of an earlier capitalism and an earlier stage in history, when Capital was something owned by the bourgeoisie and thus by at least a small part of humanity and history really was the history of class struggles. Today Capital owns us all, indeed constitutes us (even the bourgeoisie) and the struggle is between humanity and our common home —the Earth— on the one hand, and an emergent intelligence which threats to destroy us. Marx still believed that capitalism was necessary, progressive stage in our development. We believe that it is a potentially fatal evolutionary dead end.

These questions about the adequacy of Marx’s analysis are further complicated by the history of “actually existing socialism,” which, while it sometimes made real contributions to human liberation and human development, has not, on the whole, proven itself to be an authentic form of transition to communism, understood to include at the very least the decommodification of labor power and the restoration of creative control over labor to the workers themselves. On the contrary, historic socialism has on the whole, radicalized and extended proletarianization and has served the interests of primitive accumulation, with the result that it is better understood as a more “popular” variant of the statist road to capitalist development than as form of transition to communism (Moore 1968, Skocpol 1978).

Weber can help us here, and so can Durkheim. But they too can only take us so far. Weber (Weber 1968/1920) understood better than Marx the capitalist ideal —and its destructive impossibility. And he had a dawning intuition in his discussion of the “iron cage of instrumental rationality” that Capital, while it had emerged from humanity, was becoming an autonomous power. But he could not, in his time, imagine fully what it would become. And Durkheim (1893/1964) understood early on, in a way that Marx did not, that capitalism was destroying the very fabric of our society, breaking down through the division of labor the bonds which nurture the meaning and solidarity which make us human, but he had no idea that that destruction would eventually become nearly complete.

There have, to be sure, been tentative efforts to engage what Capital is becoming. Leninism was first and foremost a response to the fact that the alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power (Marx 1844/2000) undercut the spontaneous development of socialist consciousness within the proletariat and necessitated the formation of a conscious, professional revolutionary leadership (Lenin 1902/1929).  But Lenin was mostly concerned with the road to state power.  He did not thematize and analyze in depth the impact of alienation on the formation of socialist consciousness and did not explain how the revolutionary leadership, unlike the proletariat it led, was to escape the spiritual deformities caused by capitalism. The Frankfort School (Fromm 1941, 1947) thematized and engaged the first of these questions, extending the analysis to show how capitalism systematically produces fascism, but offered little in the way of a solution. Gramsci (Gramsci 1926-1935/2000) engaged a related set of questions, and offered more in the way of a strategy, but it was largely away around the problem rather than through it, building support for socialism on the basis of precapitalist meanings and solidarities, religious, nationalistic, or democratic. He did not tell us what to do once Capital has destroyed these meanings and solidarities or so infected them with authoritarian dynamics that they become useless. Mao (Mao 1962) understood that the persistence of commodity relations under socialism reproduces capitalism, but he attributed the problem to petty commodity production, which is relatively benign, and not to the commodification of labor power, which he left untouched. The result was a Cultural Revolution which leveraged an important insight in service of internal power struggles within the party, struggles which nearly destroyed humanity’s oldest continuously existing civilization.

The interpreters of Weber and Durkheim have also fallen short. While Weber ended his life convinced that capitalism was destroying the human spirit (even if he did not know what to do about this) most later interpretive sociology has been an apologia for capitalism, joining Weber’s insights regarding the Protestant Ethic to an evolutionary paradigm which regards capitalism as the best possible human adaptation to life on this planet, or else arguing that humanity is doomed to endless struggle between competing civilizational ideals. (Huntington 1993). Durkheim’s interpreters (Bellah 2011) have elucidated the dangers of egoism and anomie and deepened his account of how human societies and human capacities develop, but they have not come to terms with Capital.

The result has been a dark turn in theory which has its antecedents deep in the nineteenth century, but which is marked above all by the hegemony of Martin Heidegger (Heidegger 1938/2000) and his interpreters across the humanities and social sciences. The attraction of Heidegger would not be hard to see —were he not an unrepentant NAZI.  Heidegger thematized and criticized the instrumentalization of humanity and nature at a time when socialism had come to mean forced collectivization and primitive socialist accumulation. But even if his analysis had not led him to NAZISM —by means, we will show, of an ineluctable, necessary logic— his analysis of the roots of this dynamic of “technopolitical control” in what he calls Latin “ontotheology,” the drive to a universal explanatory-deductive system which explains the universe and orders human action, simply doesn’t hold up (Mansueto 2012). And his theory of history as a series of divergent “advents”or “unveilings of Being” is little more than a philosophical substructure for the “clash of civilizations” reading of Weber, with the difference that where the neoconservatives who popularized this reading in the 1990s and 2000s argued for defending liberal, democratic, values Heidegger argues for … NAZISM.

This is why, even though it is not at all hard to find theory which recognizes just how destructive capitalism has become and which recognizes that historic socialism was also a dead end, we have no vision, no analysis, no strategy to move us forward.  The poststructuralist, deconstructive, genealogical, and “weak communist” theory (Derrida 1967/1977, Foucault 1976/1979, Agamben 1995/1998, Vattimo and Zavala 2011) which presents itself as an alternative in the present period, while it is capable of incisive criticisms of existing structures of oppression, teaches that any attempt to ground such a critique metaphysically or morally, and to join it to an explanatory-deductive theory which can in turn govern strategy will lead right back to ontotheology and technopolitical instrumentalization. In other words, Heidegger’s followers, not wanting to advocate NAZISM, advocate Nothing. This trend, furthermore, while often at least seeming to prioritize the struggle against racism and patriarchy over the struggle against Capital, does so on the basis of the very logic which led Heidegger to NAZISM in the first place.

Capital no longer needs to disarm the Left. We have disarmed ourselves.

And so we need a new theory and a new analysis of the historic trajectory of Capital which takes into consideration where capitalism has actually led us. But if we are going to the laws of motion Capital and their articulation with imperialism and colonialism, patriarchy and misogyny, which long precede Capital, we need a theory with much more comprehensive historic reach. And if we are going to take seriously the depth of the ecological crisis and its roots in an industrial technology intimately bound up with the scientific paradigms which emerged from the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as well as the emergence of Capital as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie and the possible emergence of other forms of artificial intelligence, this cannot just be a social theory. We need a theory which thinks about the human civilizational project in a much broader context, a theory which allows us to think politically about space and time, place and history, matter and energy, minerals and chemicals, plants and animals, rational animals and intelligent machines and differently-embodied intellects like Capital. Only on this basis can we elaborate a strategy which will allow us to engage a struggle which is increasingly no longer just with human adversaries but with the asuric, transhuman power which is Capital.

But there is more. Humanity’s struggle against Capital depends on a comprehensive account of what it means to be human, and thus of human potential and of the aims of human life in the context of the material reality we inhabit. And this in turn requires a comprehensive treatment of the nature of Being as such, including 1) what we can know and how, 2) the nature of the material universe and its cosmoi, 3) the first principle and the end or purpose to which the universe is ordered,  and, most especially, of 4) human nature, the specific ends to which we are ordered, and our possible evolutionary trajectory.  Only on this basis that we can discern how to ripen Being and to cultivate the kind of human beings who can defeat Capital and realize the communist ideal of a society in which  “every one of [our]  relations … must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of [our] will, of [our] real individual life Marx 1844/2000).  And so we need philosophy, which as Marx always knew, is the “head of the revolution (Marx 1843/2000).”

What we discover, though, is that the end to which humanity is ordered is nothing other than God, understood as the Power of Being as Such. This is quite apart from the question of whether or not “God exists.”  The atheist Sartre understood that “humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre 1943),” and Buddhism has long argued that the underlying cause of human suffering is our difficulty in accepting that our desire for permanent, inherent existence, which is the same thing as the desire to be God, is impossible.  While we will address question of the existence and nature God, and give a more positive evaluation of the arguments for  God than either Sartre or the Buddhists, the more pressing question is to consider what it means to Be and specifically what it means to be human in relation to our desire to be God.  We need, in other words, a theology. And since we have already framed the question of what it means to be human in terms of contemporary political struggles, the sort of theology we need is a political theology.

The larger work —my Summa Theologiae in Re Publicae: Against Capital— of which this is the very beginning, will be all of these: fundamental theory (formal and scientific, physical, biologial, social, and transocial), philosophy, and (political) theology and it will examine all of these questions in considerable depth, in the light of the relevance to the current crisis and the ultimate ends of human life. But since the higher discipline (here political theology) forms and informs the lower (science and philosophy), we need to begin with an in-depth discussion of what we mean by political theology, especially in the light of its recent revivals. It is to this task which will turn in the next installment of this blog.


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