What’s the big idea?

McKenzie Wark – Capital Is Dead, is this something worse? (Verso, 2020)

McKenzie Wark’s book is in a lineage. I’m going to call it a tradition now, because there’s enough of it already and 2020 is going to push it into the past for a while. It’s in the tradition of the accelerationist manifesto, its diasporas and controversies.

Paul Mason is the scarecrow in the middle of this field. The most visible and stuffed with straw. Mason is a bloody good journalist actually, and a very useful totem figure for the British Labour Left. But when he strays into risky philosophical-theoretical territory, he is likely to get himself pecked up.

Actually, reading Mason feels like a recent incident: A colleague of mine sat down at lunch, while talking assuredly about big ideas. He parked his coffee. I was all ears. Then he pulled open his shrinkwrapped baguette with some force. The sandwich flew high into canteen air – backwards, over his shoulder – leaving him contemplating the edible qualities of a cellophane wrapper (he might say ‘edibility’).

The shrieking grew louder over the far side of the room. The sound of chairs and tables being pushed back. Reading this stuff sometimes feels that way too. To coin a phrase that might be wartime code, when reading McKenzie Wark’s book ‘the sandwich flies through the air many times.’

Some of it is just a bit OTT. For instance, at one point, Wark describes neoliberalism as alt-fascism. Wark declares that privacy is a bourgeois indulgence. I’ll be round your place in half an hour to rummage through your stuff McKenzie. I don’t take it seriously, which shouldn’t be a problem. But finding that on page one makes me take the rest of the book with a pinch, which might be a problem. Perhaps it’s not my problem. Perhaps it’s Verso and Wark’s. A socialist might say it’s the movement’s problem. An anarchist of a certain stripe might claim indifference. I think it’s a book, with some writing in it.

And again, there have been a lot of books with writing in them recently, about roughly the same thing. A lot of them came out in Britain in the period between the Corbyn-Momentum headrush and now, the early 2020 sugar crash. The deadening December 2019 election result can still be felt, and it is horrible, right enough. But there is even a literature review of the reviews of this kind of book which can be done now. For instance, Owen Hatherley covered Paul Mason’s and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s books on ‘postcapitalism’ very well in LRB, in June 2016.

I think that the subject of postcapitalism has two psychic modes.

Mode 1: the scary realisation that many of us in the West were living like Nero back there and nobody flogged us for moaning about it all the time; ‘after Capitalism’ meaning there is worse to come also kind-of means ‘ah shit, look…’

Mode 2: the giddy otherside to the skin-picking anxiety seems to be bobhatted Momentum tote-bag carrying evangelists pulling old ladies to one side to preach the virtues of asteroid-mining.

Before the egg mayo and cress hits the atrium windows once again – a segmented impact scenario, with a good deal of fallout – let me suggest two other binary modes of the postcapitalscape; perhaps some people are in Capitalism and some are already after Capitalism. Those who have achieved the supposedly impossible perpetuum mobile state of doing what they like and somehow making a living – they might not recieve universal basic income, it doesn’t exist, but it must feel the same way – as opposed to those who never do what they like and struggle simply to be.

Perhaps ‘Socialism for the rich, Capitalism for the poor’ could now be translated into a new slogan. That slogan might be ‘postcapital for the privileged, in it for the masses.’ I am absolutely certain that ‘sustainable’ now simply means, to hijack Orwell, that ‘everyone is sustainable, but some are far less sustainable than others.’ Of course, the savvy will complain that those floating in some sort of buoyant state and those drowning all do so in Capital, and they will be right to do so. I’m just shoving a hard finger into some soft ribs.

I agree with them, but McKenzie Wark doesn’t. The groundwork of the book seems very good. Capitalism has essences and appearances. But even in Wark’s own arguments the appearance has shifted, but the essence remains. Then stubbornly Wark will insist that the essence has in fact changed, to the extent that Capitalism has gone.

The evidence need go no further than the act of reading Wark’s book. It is ordered via just-in-time processes on behalf of a company that turns profit and loss and creates surplus from labour processes. Wark’s attempt to suggest a kind-of Darwinian shift in human production is at least in part a gambit towards creating novelty in a corner of a saturated marketplace. The idea of Capitalism’s end is undermined in Wark’s idea of how Capitalism is ending. That self-undermining is then underscored by the mode of delivery of that argument.

The pulling back of a curtain to reveal a bigger monster than the one we thought we faced is part of that big sell. It is melodramatic and the melodrama ends with an offer of how to understand the new monster and what to do about it. Wark produces innovation in a corner of the marketplace – leftwing theory – and then embeds this in a future curve during which this innovation can be mined. Wark’s game then is at least partially, perhaps fully, Capitalist. We will not negate Capital – except through our own self-destruction – nature will now negate it, and us.

However I do agree with Wark that flinging chunks of ancient nineteenth century theoretical stuff into the Western breach will not fill it. What we are facing here needs new, not the ashen old Marxist or ‘progressive’ scripts. And I consider myself a kind of Marxist. Wark argues that we move from high theory to low theory. I like the concept of a profane, riffing, open ‘theory’. But in Wark’s hands it seems to mean that the rejection of grand theory says we can find transgressive microhistories. This just makes it a reversal to the posts- and to the Foucauldian. I think the recent reversal to a time before pomo and postructuralism is just bruised mourning, but I also think that retrenching into fragments of postmodernity is futile.

But there is a limit to how far theoretical innovation itself is useful. Because people with homes suddenly full of filthy water are not going to start saying ‘oh well that’s OK because I always wanted the line between nature and the man-made to blur.’ McKenzie Wark can say whatever McKenzie Wark likes precisely because McKenzie Wark doesn’t sleep in a doorway on the high street. When Wark describes the hacker class, Wark is suddenly describing McKenzie Wark.

Wark claims that negation has happened and that tech is an essence, not an appearance. Heidegger thought technology would never unconceal itself. Its essence was forever inscrutable. Yet Wark jumps in and claims it exactly just so. Hardt and Negri thought new media meant revolution was a moment away. I agree with Hardt and Negri more than Wark, and I don’t believe them at all.

Wark takes the opening of Marx’s Capital as a collection of things and says it is now information about things. In the commodities exchange in Manchester, information about things became lifted off the things themselves. Engels saw this and wrote about it in his own time. Those things included bales of raw cotton produced by abused, wageless black slaves forcibly taken from their homes in Africa. It all became abstracted in indexes. Wark understands that production has shifted to bad states with punitive regimes, yet still insists on the larger part of the book’s argument. That larger argument hangs in strips. It never knits. The shift from object to spectacle to web 2.0 is surely a shift to immersion. There are already accounts of the way information shifted, for which look to Friedrich Kittler and Leo Findeisen, particularly Findeisen’s essay ‘Some Code To Die For’.

But this book isn’t to be rejected. The key part of its argument runs that what at first was put in place to ‘assist capital to defeat Labour in the overdeveloped world was also a defeat for capital’. This is the crux. I think about this through the demand that Feudalism adapt and survive in the early nineteenth century, and that old capital also had to do something similar at other times. In terms of Wark’s territory, this begins in the late 1970s. Each period has particular shapes. The ruffles on the dress of history may only be ruffles, but the cloth falls in an unrepeatable way each time. Infocapital has its own peculiar effect. The ‘vector enters the flesh and commands it, and not just as meat, but also as information…’ Here, Wark hits on a rich seam of very real understanding and communicates it beautifully. I think the conclusion is on page 48, that ‘the vectoral infrastructure throws all of the world into the engine of commodification, meanwhile modifying the commodity form itself.’

This gets right to the heart of what Wark is trying to say. On page 69 Wark states that ‘the socialisation of knowledge’ is ’embedded into the form of technology as general intellect.’ These are excellent insights and strong contributions to contemporary theory, but the end of Capitalism it is not. The question of the title ‘Capital is dead, is this something worse?’ already has its parallel, metonymical reply: ‘Capital is always dying away and coming back with sharper fangs.’ It may be a vampire, a zombie – all metaphors, yes – it is probably both and it has not been superceded by a new monster. It is definitely vectoral, it has finally penetrated our minds and bodies, but it has not stopped being Capitalism. The ‘vectoralist class still sits atop a pyramid of exploited labour’ writes Wark on page 115. There you go. Capitalism.

Wark’s ‘Hacker Class’ is still interesting and useful too. Wark states that it ‘turns out that politics is much less about the relation between the friend and the enemy, and much more crucially about relations among nonfriends and nonenemies.’ This an American perspective on class, but I do believe we had our first American election in Britain in 2019. Not only was it Trumpian in important ways, but the old class perspectives are shaken. The Tories’ ‘Dave from Bolton’ is of course a bullshit advertisement, but there is enough that is real about him. (And also damn you Dave, what the hell do you think you are doing?!).

The post-EU open borders island has a mixed demographic of incomers who think more like Americans. The old British struggles of labour versus capital make less sense to them. The orthodox British left will no doubt strongly object, in a further refusal of basic reality. Others may scream ‘xenophobe’. Do what you like, I think a UK of vast cultural difference is great, but I don’t have to like a multitudinous politics and the multitude doesn’t have to like mine. Wark is good on this. The idea of a diverse workforce says ‘of course the algorithm is in theory very tolerant about who it exploits.’ The idea of the ‘California ideology’ in Wark’s book is very useful too, but it doesn’t take arcane theory to see everyone in the West has been affected by that.

But there are problems even here. The ‘class location blues chapter’ views everything through the lens of the laptopped New Yorker. This is the risk with the Hacker Class. If you are one of those people, it will be very tempting to see the vast assemblage through the lens of the connected. It’s one thing saying that all of capital is now vectors if you are in this world of flows yourself. If you work in a Chinese flip-flop factory, you would probably be better off reading mid-nineteenth century Marx. Wark goes hard on Marxists for not giving us a proper materialist reading, then weaves unsteadily between a critique of materialism and ideologies. Wark claims to be cleaving to a hardcore materialism, at the same time as thinking privacy is a bloated idea.

I prefer Benjamin Noys on all of this. He can do the philosophy properly. He doesn’t make ludicrous claims or write things that sound like a self-help manual. But what makes him very good is probably what makes less people know about him. In fact, I reckon Wark would be a better writer unshackled from the theoretical framework of Marxism entirely. When this work is good it is brilliant, but that tallies with more open, speculative thinking, rather than work trying to align or disalign itself with ‘the tradition’.

It fizzles out with the détourning Wark of old, ‘workings of the world untie’ and becoming acommunist. And yet and yet. Among all this dusting the ash off J.D. Bernal and others there is a flash of exactly what we need. A new Scientific Enlightenment completely aware of our precarious position in the universe:

‘Scarcity predates Capital and endures beyond it. The project to overcome it can (and must) be freely chosen but can never close the gap between the human and the nonhuman worlds. At best it might result in an inhuman apparatus less worse, less damaging, than the last.’

Wark cites Drew Milne’s poetry collection In Darkest Capital. In, not out, McKenzie, see? Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’. It is the slowest overthrow. Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’ to it, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. Milne refers to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force.

So I think behind all of this is Enlightenment. Nobody seems to be tackling Enlightenment. I send you to Noys, and via Noys back to Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno & Horkheimer. Extinction Rebellion are Enlightenment, but they need the negation of Adorno & Horkheimer. When Greta Thunberg says listen to climate scientists and use your freedom to do something, she is as Enlightenment as Voltaire’s knee breeches. And I salute those knee breeches, and I salute Greta Thunberg. But we can’t have Enlightenment like Steven Pinker thinks it. What Wark essentially describes is a sinister fold inwards of instrumentalised Enlightenment thought, but never says that.

Therefore Hatherley was right to say, back in 2016, just before all this literature became a curve, that much of it describes an absence. Capital is not Dead. It thrives. But there are glimmers of another book here and I want McKenzie Wark to write it.

– Steve Hanson

Rethinking Energy Part 2

Vaclav Smil – Energy and Civilisation: A History (MIT)

Vaclav Smil has largely rewritten his 1990s text on energy because developments in the field have outstripped his original efforts, even though the book remained in print, a staple of the subject. You can see why, too, the term ‘polymath’ was made for people such as Smil.

Smil begins ‘energy is the only universal currency’ and ‘one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done.’ He claims that ‘universal manifestations of these transformations range from the enormous rotations of galaxies to thermo-nuclear reactions in stars’. On earth they include ‘the terraforming forces of plate tectonics…’

What Smil does well is to question what energy is. Early on, he says that ‘even Nobel prize winners have difficulty in giving a satisfactory answer to that seemingly simple question.’ Richard Feynman once stated that he did not know what energy was, that he did not have a picture that energy ‘comes in little blobs’ of a definite amount.

‘What we do know is that all matter is energy at rest’, Smil then explains. Here, the anthropomorphism arrives, as though stones can be heard sighing, grateful to no longer be lava, if one listens closely enough.

This kind of anthropomorphism starts on page one and shoots right through the book. Smil does question the linear assumptions of science narratives though: Humans understood how to build nuclear bombs and power stations before they fully understood how photosynthesis worked; windmills acted as important energy catalysts for decades before the mass explosion of machine technology, even though many of the pieces were in place for such a revolution.

But this questioning of development, of ‘it’ moving from better to worse, in an even upward curve, is undermined by the structure of the book itself, which bears the imprint of the kind of thinking being critiqued. It moves from pre-civilised societies to advanced urban ones.

The bottomless depths of relativism open up often: The attempts to frame energy epistemologically, horsepower in Watt’s steam engine, Joules, etc; all of these seem to assume that another value form is nearby, the money form, which is so little touched upon that it is actually overbearingly present for a reader well-versed in Marx.

However, to understand that different types of wheat and then charcoal development led eventually to modernity, that foragers and farmers were co-existent for long stretches of history, because the energy needed for farming is more than for foraging, is to step into a bigger world. This book is that effective.

The scales of horses, from the pony to the shire, and later the power of the suicide bomber belt next to world war two shrapnel impact: This is a useful and instructive book. What it loses by being framed in a default 20th century way, it gains in detail.

That I can even see that a book on energy and civilisation is framed by the rapid movement, change and development of the previous epoch is hopefully an indication that it might not be in the future. Much of the information and narrative explanation in this book could lead to a better world, for humans.

This book makes a very good counterpart to a reading of Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres Trilogy. It would also be a really great resource for a reading of Latour’s object oriented ontology, because it gives a wide range of data in accessible form that could be reprocessed through a less whiggy history and a more constellatory philosophy. This, ultimately, is what is needed. Although Smil acknowledges that a quantitative approach cannot ever over-ride the fuzzier cultural explanations of energy developments, the book sometimes seens torn between hard science and the humanities in an occasionally compromised way.

Smil ends with the French essayist Senancour: ‘Man perisheth. That may be, but let us struggle even though we perish.‘ This book is evidence of how primitive and advanced we are at the same time, the one seemingly paradoxical judgment never cancelling out the other. We can see very far, although there is good evidence that we are reaching our limit, because at the same time we can never escape – despite the wildest post-humanist claims – from seeing through ourselves.

Marx claimed the ur value was money, Smil energy. There are scientists who can see the world as genetic drift after an epoch of only chemistry. But none of them can move us beyond the experience of most humans across the longer historical curve, who experience it all as though it is a peculiar dream. The one thing we can never escape, it seems, is being human. The idea of energy as anything at all is uniquely human, and the idea of energy as currency is unique to humans within a very particular and finite age.

But don’t read my picky comments as a bad review: This book is an absolutely towering achievement; it is that rare species in our times, a grand sweep work over 550 pages long, with more than enough detail to justify its panoramic pictures.

Rethinking Energy Part 1

Karen Pinkus – Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (Minnesota University Press)

Fuel is matter that we use, and use up, to produce energy. When we talk about ‘sustainable energy’, we are describing a state wherein we have enough fuel to continue using it up without worrying about future energy lack. We can sustain energy supply, but we cannot sustain fuel. There are no sustainable fuels; that would be an oxymoron. The sun itself is not sustainable… at least not indefinitely.

Karen Pinkus’ new book, Fuel, is a heroic effort to remind us that sustainability is often an illusion caused by our human-sized view of the world. Where ‘energy’, ‘climate’, ‘environment’, and other ‘green terms’ bring to mind graphs and bar charts on the one hand and images of a pastel-coloured globe on the other (cf/ Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’ Fragile), fuel itself is a palpable thing; the thing we dig, the thing we pour, the think we eat and drink.

Pinkus’ dictionary lists our fuels and the human-sized illusions which imprinted us with the idea of sustainability. The Montgolfier brothers had a balloon ‘powered by air’, but lifted by burning fuel. Jules Verne’s wonderful machines were powered by ‘electricity’, and that’s all the enthralled reader needed to know. Windmills and sails and hydroelectric turbines and tidal power plants all capitalise on nature’s surpluses, during the hours those surpluses exist, but are themselves made of wood, skins, steel, labour.

Something always burns. Something’s always used up. With fuel then comes the measure of value. A refrain that runs throughout the text is provided by the Henry Ford Archive papers, in which are held many letters from mad inventors and speculators to the great magnate himself proposing the next Big Fuel.

Some are insane, some unprofitable, some merely less profitable than petrol: in the eyes of the industrialist all three categories are the same. But petrol itself was once the useless waste byproduct of the usable paraffin, and Ford himself invested in numerous ‘biofuels’ in the search for ethanol powered transport; the vaunted ‘boozemobile’.

Fuel gives energy to move machines but it also, Pinkus suggests, must move us. The chemistry is in thrall to economics, and economics to human-sized valuations. Did the booze ration fuel the British Navy, Pinkus asks, any more than the wind and wood? What fuel is in a flag that it could energise Crusoe alone on his island?

The form of the book itself draws attention to the human proportions of fuel. Presented alphabetically as a ‘speculative dictionary’, the claim to comprehensive coverage made by the form is everywhere undermined by the fragmentary, tangential and speculative content.

It is to be read, one feels, from start to finish. It should be used up like fuel for thought. It has more to do with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, or Sterne’s digressions, than with Rousseau, Dr Johnson, and the Enlightenment mission.

It is explicitly not the only catalogue of fuels you’ll ever need. It’s more like an antidote to the cataloguing disease: a textual disease with symptoms including perpetual over-consumption.

One of the few weaknesses of the text is its conclusion. Pinkus suggests a Heideggerian reconciliation with discontinuity as an alternative to forever ‘sustaining’ energy supply. My personal gripes with Heidegger aside, the image of a self-denying humanity runs counter to the fuel-thirsty animal of the rest of the book. We eat, we drink, we burn, we build, we list – collect, compile and consume.

Going without fuel seems to contradict the rest of the book which is, ultimately, an account of humanity’s desperate centuries-long scramble for more of it. If there is hope in the book it lies in the eccentric amateurs hunting out the next stop-gap, or the technologists seeking to make the next quick buck.

Great breakthroughs are not logical and linear in Fuel, they are bumbling, stumbling things often arbitrary in the time and place of their success. It makes for a great read rather than a practical solution. In fact, it offers so many practical solutions that one begins to suspect that we, as a species, are asking the wrong questions.

– Joe Darlington