Saturday, 20 October 2018

Is nature a machine? Reflections on a passage in the Grundrisse

“In agriculture, the soil itself with chemical etc. action is already a machine which makes direct labour more productive...” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, 1973: 588)
Is nature a machine? Perhaps. But according to Marx, machinery can transfer value to the product while nature cannot. What, then, is meant by the statement that nature is a machine?

First, does machinery really transfer value to the product? It is a widely held assumption that in Marx’s “labour theory of value” machinery cannot produce any value, only transfer the value that has already gone into producing the machinery itself. But how exactly is this transference achieved? It is not achieved in the process of utilizing the machinery. During this process, machinery is simply a resource that is freely available to its owner, just like nature. Hence, a machine cannot transfer any value once it is acquired by an owner. It’s only a semblance that it does so, arising from the fact that a capitalist who employs machinery enjoys a competitive advantage over other capitalists who don’t. The use of machinery affects the distribution among competing capitalists of the surplus produced in the economy, but it doesn’t add to the overall amount of this surplus itself. If machinery had been simultaneously introduced and employed in the same measure by all capitalists in a certain branch of production, the result would be a general raise of productivity, shortening the “socially necessary labour” needed to produce the commodity and leading to a cheaper, less valuable product.

Machinery, then, cannot add to value once it is acquired; although it can add to the surplus value obtained by the individual capitalist (through the competitive advantage it gives the capitalist on the market, through monopolies or monopoly-like situations where competition is prevented from exerting downward pressure on the price, or by opening up new markets when commodities are developed that were impossible to produce before the introduction of machinery).

If this is so, then how can machinery “transfer” any value at all? The answer is that the transfer happens through two crucial moments. The first is the purchase and maintenance of the machinery. Just as wages (variable capital) add to value by adding to the production costs, so the purchase and maintenance of machinery (constant capital) adds to value by increasing these costs. Machinery, then, adds to value not by virtue of increasing productivity (which cheapens the product) but by virtue of its costs (which makes the product more valuable and expensive). If machinery had been free, i.e. without any costs, it would have been just as value-less as nature. Here it’s important to remember that when I write that the cost of machinery “adds” to the value of a commodity, this “adding” is actually a “transfer” of value that originates in labour, since – according to the labour theory of value – the cost of a machine reflects its value which corresponds to the “socially necessary labour” that has gone into producing it.

The second moment is, of course, when the commodity is realized on the market, since without this realization the commodity wouldn’t have any value of all.

These reflections clarify why nature takes on the appearance of a “free lunch” in capitalism. Nature is like a machine in the sense that utilizing it as a resource in the production of commodities doesn’t add to their value. As stated above, it's not the process of utilizing a machine that adds to value. Value is only transferred from machinery when the cost of purchasing and maintaining machinery reflects labour that has been socially necessary to produce it. To the extent that nature preexists such labour, it functions like a valueless machine. While it has use-value, like all machinery, it lacks value in a strict sense to the extent that labour isn't needed to produce it.

Just as nature can be seen as a value-less machine, machinery can be seen as value-endowed nature. Once acquired by the capitalist, however, machinery functions as nature tout simple.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Is Marx' value law anthropocentric?

One question that bothers many people who start to study Marxism is why labour power alone is regarded as the source of value in capitalism. Why not technology, energy flows or other forms of constant capital? What makes labour power special?

Human labour is said to be a unique commodity that produces more value than is required for its reproduction. To be sure, tools and natural resources can transfer value to the commodity, but that value stems from the labour that is socially necessary to produce them. Human workers, by contrast, contribute more value than they get back in the form of wages. This is the source of surplus-value.

But this argument is unsatisfactory since it doesn't explain why human labour alone produces value. At first glance, it seems obvious that robots and other machines are just as capable as humans of producing "more" than is needed for their reproduction. To rebuff this objection it isn't enough to point out that what robots produce "more" of isn't value, since that would make the argument circular. To avoid the charge of anthropocentrism, shouldn't one rather accept that the crucial input that creates value is simply energy, whether this passes through human bodies or not?

While this might be tempting, doing so would be a mistake. To explain why, let's try an (admittedly simplistic) thought experiment.* Say that we want to produce a fixed amount of a commodity. Superficially, it might seem that labour power and machinery are equivalent in the sense that both simply provide energy to the production process. Try, however, to increase either of them and see what happens. Introducing more or better machinery can be expected to increase productivity and prices will therefore tend to fall. In terms of the value law, the increasing energy flows will lower the amount of "socially necessary" labour for producing the commodity and hence its value. The opposite effect follows if we instead increase labour power. Assuming that the commodity will be sold and that wages remain constant, the increase in working-hours will drive up the costs for labour and hence also prices. In terms of the value law, the result is a more valuable commodity.

Why does the increase in the flow of energy results in a less valuable commodity in one case and a more valuable commodity in the other? If we want to avoid anthropocentrism, the only possible answer is that the form of wage labour is crucial, regardless of whether this labour power is provided by humans or non-humans. By the form of wage labour I mean that labour is treated as a commodity that is the private property of individual workers and sold for wages on a labour market. Using Marx's terms, we might say that wage labour alone is "abstract labour" capable of producing value, while other types of energy input are "concrete labour" - labour that is useful but fails to show up as value.

What matters, then, isn't whether labour power is human or not, but whether it is waged or not. The thought experiment above helps us see why. Due to the form of wage labour, increasing the input of labour power for a fixed amount of a commodity must result in increasing production costs, unless workers are found who are willing to work for cheaper wages. Due to the competition between capitals, increasing the production costs associated with labour will usually not be a viable strategy unless for some reason there is a general rise of the "socially necessary labour" for manufacturing it. Increasing other forms of energy input, by contrast, is usually done to lower production costs. The fact that energy has a unit cost - e.g. kilowatt hours of electricity - doesn't make it similar to labour power, since the overall effect will still be to cheapen production. Due to the competition between capitals, this will also result in a general decrease in the "socially necessary labour" needed for manufacturing the commodity. There is thus a crucial difference in regard to production costs, which means that labour power sets the baseline for value while other forms of energy subtract from value in proportion to their cheapness in relation to labour power.**

An interesting consequence - which might sound fanciful but which might well be spelled out more boldly than has been done so far - is that it is quite possible to imagine robots or animals producing value provided that these robots or animals are at the same time employed as wage-workers.

The crucial role of wage labour is shown by the fact that, just as waged robots or animals can produce value, human workers can lose their value-creating ability if their labour isn't provided as individual wage labour. Imagine, for example, a capitalist who pays a lump sum to a sub-contractor who agrees to provide the capitalist with all the necessary labour power. In such a case the number of workers can obviously be increased without adding to the value of the commodity. The same holds true for a labour force consisting of serfs producing for a capitalist market. The effect in both cases is similar to the effect of increasing productivity by un-waged machinery.***

In a nutshell, from the point of view of the value law, un-waged labour tends to behave like constant capital while waged machinery, if it were to exist, would tend to behave like variable capital.

That the form of wage-labour is crucial for the value law of course doesn't mean that individual capitalists must rely on wage-labour. While capitalism as a whole certainly depends on the production of surplus-value, individual capitalists compete for a share of the aggregate amount of surplus-value in various ways, above all by trying to increase productivity and cutting wage costs. This is why wage-labour can be central to capitalism while individual capitalists at the same time try to minimize their reliance on wage-labour. It is also why capitalism co-exists with a wide variety of un-waged forms of labour. Although the latter don't create value, they give individual capitalists a competitive edge against other capitalists and help them increase their share of the aggregate surplus-value produced in society.****

A final thought: does my suggestion that the labour law should be understood as non-anthropocentric mean that we might imagine a capitalism in which all human labour can be abolished and replaced by robots? Theoretically speaking, yes, although its hard to imagine such a society ever being realized. Furthermore, abolishing human labour would not mean the end of social conflicts. Indeed, such a society is likely be at least as conflict-ridden as today. To begin with, who says that robots must necessarily be docile (especially if they have evolved so far as to be able to replace human labour and to function as full-fledged free individuals owning their own labour power)? Secondly, the great mass of un-employed humanity would still need to be fed. Not all humans will be able to enter the capitalist class or remain there, and those who can't will hardly be docile either.


* As mentioned, the thought experiment rests on many simplifying assumptions. I have regarded demand for the commodity as inflexible and simply assumed that it will be sold. I have also assumed that wages are inflexible (so that wage-labour isn't increased, for instance, by moving production to countries with cheaper wages). I have also disregarded the possibility that increasing the quantity of workers can have the effect of increasing productivity (e.g. though a division of labour). Finally, I have disregarded that technology too has costs that in some instances (e.g. in start-up phases) may off-set the tendency for technology to cheapen production.

** This relation is obscured by the fact of monopolistic price-setting, e.g. due to scarcity (see the chapters on ground rent in Capital, vol. III). Since almost all natural resources are to some extent defined by scarcity, "nature" is a realm where prices are almost never determined in accordance with the value law. See this old blog post for a discussion of how Marx treats scarcity.

*** Interestingly, it doesn't hold for most forms of slavery, since the slave-owner usually has to provide the costs for the reproduction of the labour force. This means that slavery approximates modern wage-labour better than serfdom (where the workers are to a greater extent responsible for their own subsistence).

**** This is why it is crucial to distinguish between what Marx calls the rate of profit (s/(c+v)) and the rate of surplus value (s/v). Natural resources (c) don't contribute to surplus value, but they do contribute to the rate of profit. Why? Because the rate of profit diminishes the costlier these resources are, just as it diminishes the costlier labour power (v) is. As Marx points out, the notion of the rate of profit is important since it is what most immediately motivates capitalists, namely the return on capital.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Dark Mountain and hope: some quotes and reflexions

No emotion lends itself so well to paradoxical formulations as hope. Writing this I recall Walter Benjamin's words at the end of his essay on Goethe - “Only for the sake of the hopeless are we given hope”. Yes, this may well be true. There is a logic connecting hope and hopelessness, two emotions that constantly seem to invite each other. Indeed, the very presence of hope testifies to the existence of something bad, something that we want to escape. In that sense, every incidence of hope is cause for pessimism. Perhaps there is no pure hope, no hope without an element of hopelessness? But conversely, isn't it true that one sometimes experiences how giving up hope can be a cure against hopelessness?

When asked by an interviewer if he had hope in view of the ecological disaster, Paul Shepard replied: "Of course I have hope. Why not, it’s cheap and available. It is also the last resort” (quoted in Jensen 2004: 256). A seemingly opposite viewpoint is offered by the Salvage magazine: "Hope is precious; it must be rationed".

The curious thing is that both statements ring true, and that's the paradox.

Here's what Naomi Klein wrote after Trump's election: ”To quote a popular saying on the French left, 'The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.' ('L’heure est à l’optimisme, laissons le pessimisme pour des temps meilleurs.')”

I realize of course that hope isn't the same as optimism. Hope is a feeling not wholly under our conscious control, while optimism is a cognitive assessment. Rebecca Solnit puts it well when she writes that both optimism and pessimism are set views of the future and both provide excuses for inactivity. Hope, by contrast, is to see the future as open and thus calling for action (Solnit 2006; also Ehrenreich 2009:3, Weber-Nicholsen 2002:183). Yet despite this difference, the paradoxical quality of hope often seems to reflect on statements about optimism (and pessimism) as well, at least to the extent that such statements are meant to induce a feeling of hope.

I'd like to use these remarks about hope as a way of approaching and making sense of two books I've read recently, Paul Kingsnorth's Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (2017) and Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times (2017), an anthology of texts produced by the Dark Mountain collective (of which Kingsnorth is a co-founder). Dark Mountain is a hugely interesting group of writers, artists and activists who came together in 2009 to put words on the experiences of loss accompanying the decay and collapse of civilization. The fundamental gesture of Dark Mountain consists, I believe, in giving up hope that "the world can be saved". Instead, the group insists that accepting loss and honestly confronting the fact that the catastrophe can no longer be avoided is a liberating act. In a debate with fellow enviornmentalist Wen Stephenson, Kingsnorth expresses it as follows:
This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission to give up hope. … I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. … Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult. (quoted in Stephenson 2012)

Whereas much environmentalism until now has employed an apocalyptic rhetoric, pointing to the threat of a future, global catastrophe only in order to enable us to avoid it, Dark Mountain instead exemplifies what I've called a new post-apocalyptic form of environmentalism which sees catastrophe as something that's already here: as already having happened, as ongoing or as unvaoidable.

In post-apocalyptic environmentalism we encounter a new paradox. Don't people need hope in order to become activists? It's a well-known saying that people don't join movements because of pessimism. As Klein points out in the quote above, pessimism should probably be "saved for better times" if you want to stop bad things from taking over entirely. In regard to climate activism in particular, researchers have pointed to the centrality of the emotion of hope in mobilizing and sustaining activism (e.g. Ojala 2012). Even if emotions such as fear, anxiety, despair or depression may exist among activists, hope is still indispensible, mediating the other emotions so as to motivate action (Gardner 2017, Kleres & Wettergren 2017). At the climate summit in Paris 2015 (COP21), well-known environmental organizations such as Greenpeace made a point of delivering a bright and hopeful message, praising the deal as an important breakthrough. The aim was to avoid generating feelings of disappointment among activists and in the general public, and thereby maintain trust in the efficacy of activism (see e.g. Thörn et al 2017: 240f).  

To understand post-apocalyptic forms of activism, as in Dark Mountain, we need to drop the premise that all mobilization needs hope in the sense of upbeat, optimistic messages - the "positive thinking" lambasted by Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book Bright-Sided. Dark Mountain is the antithesis of such thinking.

The answer to the riddle is, I believe, that Dark Mountain relies on the paradoxical quality of hope - the fact that giving up hope may be a way to gain hope. Sean Parson (2017) advocates making use of this paradox in activism, citing Adorno as the great theoretician of “revolutionary pessimism” in which politics is generated by “embracing doom”. An even blunter example is Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) which advocates a radical-Buddhist rejection of hope. By realizing that we are “already dead” and that our civilization, including capitalism, are also dead, we can let go of our fear. That is the only way of seeing what possibilities we have to adapt to the new reality. Somewhat similar is the suggestion by Flores & Rousse (2016) to embrace ecological finitude, learning to die as a species, while at the same time finding space for “fulgor” – the faint glimmer or glow of a dawning reconfiguration – and radical hope as a commitment to possibility. Here again we see how important it is not to confuse hope with optimism. In all these writers and thinkers, hope co-exists with a lack of optimism, and perhaps it even arises because of this lack. Like Kingsnorth, they also all emphasize the need for imagination - for new ideas and new stories - and that giving up hope may be the key to freeing up this imagination.

The best theoretician of this kind of paradoxical mechanism is perhaps the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who has put forward the idea of “enlightened doom-saying” and post-apocalyptic retroactivity as a way of handling climate change and other environmental threats (Dupuy 2007/2008; 2013: 27f, 46f). The problem, he states, is that the world is headed for doom, but people don’t prevent it since the future is not conceived as real. It appears unreal precisely because we believe in our free will, in our capacity to "act otherwise" which makes it impossible for us to believe that the worst will occur. Only retrospectively will it appear possible. The catastrophe “possiblizes itself” – and that is our problem, because to prevent it one needs to believe in it before it occurs. What is the solution? To project oneself into the future and look back at our present from there. One must allow “the mind to project itself into the aftermath of the catatstrophe, and treat the event in the future perfect tense” (Dupuy 2013: 204).

This strategy is described very well by Zizek in In Defense of Lost Causes. There he points to the notorious “pessimism” of Adorno and Horkheimer as an example of this paradoxical strategy: “While traditional Marxism enjoined us to engage and act in order to bring about the necessity (of communism), Adorno and Horkheimer projected themselves into the final catastrophic outcome perceived as fixed (the advent of the 'administered society' of total manipulation and the end of subjectivity) in order to stimulate us to act against this outcome in our present” (Zizek 2008: 460). Here the very rejection of ostensible “hope” becomes the precondition for hope. Only by renouncing the seemingly hopeful prognosis that the catastrophe can be averted can we free ourselves from paralysis and act.

Here it's possible to object that Dupuy isn't really accepting loss. Isn’t he still hoping to avert or at least postpone the future catastrophe by using retroactivity as an intellectual ruse? What he calls enlightened doom-saying at first sight does not appear to be based on a genuine post-apocalyptic acceptance of catastrophe; instead it is supposed to spur us to undo the catastrophe that fate has ordained for us: “to believe in fate is to prevent it from happening” (Dupuy 2013: 32). This may seem like a form of rationalism, a mere strategy for averting the worst, which is still tied to the linear perspective on time which Dupuy claims to be criticizing. But to understand Dupuy's strategy as a rationalism is to do it a disservice. It appears to me that the strategy becomes genuinely persuasive only when seen as practiced by subjects groping their way towards recovery from a traumatized or melancholic state. Rather than as a calculated trick implemented by a wholly self-controlled subject, I prefer to see it as a strategy that doesn’t have to be wholly conscious. This is why his idea is relevant in the context of Dark Mountain’s literary production where a strategy similar to Dupuy's post-apocalyptic retroactivity appears to be involved, albeit in a form that is perhaps unconscious or only half-conscious.

Dupuy himself seems to admit that full consciousness of the strategy is not required when he writes that the post-apocalyptic future should be believed in as a “fate” that is somehow similar to the way we believe in the world we encounter in literature: “We must… believe in fate exactly as one believes in a work of fiction” (ibid. 193). This stance is seemingly rational but also a way of working-through and liberating the mind in a way that could be described as only half-conscious or even dreamlike.

Michael Ortiz Hill provides an illustration of what this form of belief might mean in his discussion of apocalyptic dreams. To begin with, it is crucial not to confuse the literal and the psychic apocalypse. “In the psyche… images often have different implications than in our waking life, and the apocalyptic initiation may well require destruction” (Hill 1994: 53). Entering the “apocalypse of the psyche” may be a way of avoiding “enacting apocalypse in the world” literally. What is suggested here is that the confrontation with apocalyptic destruction in dreams can function as a catharsis, freeing us to act with greater sensibility and freedom in our waking lives. I would like to suggest that this form of confrontation is aimed at in the literary production of Dark Mountain as well as in Dupuy's “enlightened doom-saying”. Rather than a purely rational operation, this doom-saying can be enacted in dreams and played out in the unconscious as well as in literary production. The point is to psychically visit the apocalypse to free ourselves from the fixations that, in our ordinary lives, prevent us from taking action against the catastrophic course of events that unfold around us in reality. There is thus a therapeutic function to anticipating loss – to liberate the mind, and find something positive in the loss, and thus, perhaps, regain the ability to avert the worst.

It's time to wind down, but before finishing I'd like to offer a final quote. Here's Max Brod recallling a conversation with Kafka (quoted by Benjamin).
‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”
Infinite hope indeed, but this invocation of hope only serves to strengthen the impression of infinite hopelessness. And isn't that the perfect way to end this essay?


Dark Mountain (2017) Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times, ed. by Charlotte Du Cann & Dougald Hine & Nick Hunt & Paul Kingsnorth, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre (2007/2008) “Rational Choice before the Apocalypse”, Anthropoetics - The Journal of Generative Anthropology 13(3) (Fall / Winter); (accessed 2016-02-03)

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre (2013) The Mark of the Sacred, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009) Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, New York: Metropolitan Books.

Flores, Fernando & Rousse, B. Scot (2016) “Ecological Finitude as Ontological Finitude: Radical Hope in the Anthropocene”, Telos (177): 127–143.

Gardner, Claire (2017) “Oscillating Futures: Visions of Apocalypse Amongst Climate Activists”, interview by Odette Shenfield, Demos, June 2; (accessed 2017-10-25).

Hill, Michael Ortiz (1994) Dreaming the End of the World, Dallas: Spring Publications.

Jensen, Derrick (2004) “Paul Shepard”, pp. 248-259, in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros, White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Kingsnorth, Paul (2017) Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, London: Faber & Faber.

Kleres, Jochen& Åsa Wettergren (2017) “Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism”, Social Movement Studies 16(5): 507-519

Ojala, Maria (2012) “Hope and climate change: the importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people”, Environmental Education Research 18(5): 625-642.

Parson, Sean (2017) “Cthulhuscene: Ecological Catastrophe, Cosmic Horror, and the Politics of Doom”, Reading Super Heroes Politically (blog), February 24; (accessed 2017-11-25).

Scranton, Roy (2015) Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Solnit, Rebecca (2006) Hope in the Dark, New York: Nation Books.

Stephenson, Wen (2012) “‘I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth”, The Grist, April 11; (accessed 2018-01-09).

Thörn, Håkan & Cassegård, Carl & Linda Soneryd & Åsa Wettergren (2017) “Hegemony and Environmentalist Strategy: Global Govenance, Movement Mobilization and Climate Justice”, pp 219-244, in Håkan Thörn & Carl Cassegård & Linda Soneryd & Åsa Wettergren (eds.) Climate Action in a Globalizing World: Comparative Perspectives on Environmental Movements in the Global North, New York: Routledge.

Weber Nicholsen, Shierry (2002) The Love of Nature and the End of the World: the Unspoken Dimension of Environmental Concern, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (2008) In Defense of Lost Causes, London: Verso.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Salvage as utopia, or: why are anti-capitalist utopias so... capitalist?

One perhaps unfortunate side-effect of the focus on the super-rich, or "1%", in so much anti-capitalist criticism in recent years is that it conveniently forgets the capitalism pervading the rest of society. This forgetting is understandable, of course, considering the mindboggling levels of income, wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite today. The gap between the super-rich and the mass of small-scale producers, traders and entrepreneurs has taken on the semblance of a class division. Where do the profits end up? It's certainly only a trickle that ends up with small shop-owners or family-run businesses, not to speak of e-waste scavengers, private taxi drivers or freelancers. Indeed, the very idea of a class divide between "capital" and "labour" begins to lose meaning when much of what was once counted as labour is redefined as hired or subcontracted services provided by private enterprises consisting of one or just a few people. Regardless of the fact that the latter are capitalists on paper, big capital is capable of skimming surplus value off their work just as comfortably as from wage labour. Just as the reality of exploitation is hidden by the employment contract in the case of wage labour, so it can be hidden when it takes place among capitalists by a contract between seemingly equal business partners.

What I'd like to do here is to analyse what the perception of a class divide within the capitalist class does to the utopian imagination. It's no news that the utopian imagination today hardly seems capable any longer of mobilizing any radically non-capitalist, or communist, visions. In literature as well as scholarly accounts, there's instead a tendency to relish in rose-coloured visions of a thriving, buzzling market economy in which commodities mostly derive from salvage or simple do-it-yourself production. These writings, although suffused by abhorrence for the excesses symbolized by the parasitical "1%", idealize a particular kind of capitalism, a capitalism with a "human face", so to speak, from which the excesses have been purged. It's not my intention to reject visions of this kind, but I would like to point out that they're ambiguous in a very interesting way. They have a utopian lustre, as if salvage and small-scale production per se signified a post-capitalist economy, but they are also, strikingly, portrayed as part and parcel of a rather rapacious, brutal and Hobbesian form of capitalism. Visions of this kind thus present a riddle. What exactly is the utopian content of these visions? Why are we attracted to them? Are they just a trap to make us affirm capitalism even as we criticize it?

Let me turn to China Miéville's 2012 novel Railsea (written in a genre which the author himself calls "salvagepunk") to illustrate this ambiguity. The world of the novel is post-apocalyptic, but still recognizably capitalist. Humankind subsists largely on salvage, using trains to "sail" a flat, poisoned earth covered with a carpet of railways known as the "railsea" - the remains of an old, forgotten civilization whose technological achievements are far beyond the grasp of the surviving remnants of humanity. The first thing to note is that the depiction of this future world is not particularly bleak. In large parts, it's an adventurous and carnivalesque world. The gaze it turns on salvage is filled with fascination and fondness. Take for instance the following description of Streggeye, a lively "port" town where Sham - the book's protagonist - admiringly watches the salvage trains come in.
They were like no other rolling stock on the railsea. Patchwork vehicles. Powerful engines, wicked shunters at the front, train sides riveted with cladding, bristling with the peculiar tools of the salvor’s trade. Drills, hooks, cranes, sensors of various unorthodox kinds, to find & sort through the millennia of discarded rubbish that littered the railsea. Bits of salvage used & incorporated. On the topside decks salvors themselves in their distinctive clothes, tool-belts &bandoliers & stained leather chaps, snips of treated cloths & plastic feathers & showy bits & pieces pulled from the earth & miraculously unruined. Helmets of various complicated designs.
    First the city authorities would come aboard & bargain for what salvage they wanted. Then high-rolling clients, the Streggeye rich. & finally, if the salvor crews were feeling generous & had a few days, they would run a market.
    Their antique & reclaimed wares were set on stalls on the dockside, according to various taxonomies. Pitted & oxidized mechanisms from the Heavy Metal Age; shards from the Plastozoic; printouts on thin rubber & ancient ordinator screens from the Computational Era: all choice arche-salvage, from astoundingly long ago. & the less interesting stuff, too, that discarded or lost anything from a few hundred years ago to yesterday (Miéville 2013: 97f)
There's something here that reminds me of preindustrial European capitalism. The involvement in salvage activities of city authorities (and, as we learn later in the book, privateers and navy "war-trains") suggests a collusion between political power and capital that a variety of writers from Braudel and Wallerstein to Kocka have argued is typical of the capitalist world-system. The world of the railsea is thus hardly post-capitalist. And indeed, why should it be? As Evan Calder Williams points out, salvage is firmly enmeshed within the circulation of capital:
By now, the meaning of salvage has stabilized to the point where it can be paraphrased: the discovery of hidden value or use in what appears beyond repair or sale – or, at the least, a wager that the already ruined might still have some element worth saving, provided one knows where and how to look. In this form, it designates a fundamental mechanism within the circulation of capital. It is a relentless search for every last scrap of value. (Williams 2015: 845)
As a "search for every last scrap of value", salvage might not seem a likely abode of utopian possibilities. Yet distinct glimpses of such possibilities are offered in the book. We see this in a key scene when Sham arrives at the house of the siblings Caldera and Dero and asks to join them as salvors. It must be exciting, he says, to uncover the past. But Caldera admonishes him: "you don’t uncover the past if you’re a salvor: you pick up rubbish. The last thing I think you should think about’s the past. That’s what they do wrong here" (ibid. 145). Let me quote Zak Bronson, who nicely summarizes the utopian significance of this scene:
Caldera’s knowledge about the railsea suggests that she has abandoned any desire to uncover objects’ original use; instead she creatively repurposes it for its contemporary possibilities. This is something that Sham notices when he arrives at Caldera’s home, which serves also as a scrapyard for rusted-out, discarded metal. He marvels at her salvaged waste, including a stack of washing machines that arc over the entrance to their property. Sham wonders, “Why would you use arche-salvage for something it clearly wasn’t for? When there were much bloody easier things to build an arch out of?” (156). Caldera’s transformed arch signifies the utopian possibilities of salvagepunk: it turns objects upside down. In the post-apocalyptic world, their value is no longer based on the process of exchange, but on their social function within the new landscape. (Bronson 2014: 94)
I readily agree with Bronson that Caldera's salvage activities - and not least the arch - are the locus of Railsea's utopia. But isn't it significant that these utopian possibilities are not portrayed as in any sense negating the salvage-based capitalism of the railsea world? Just like the washing machines making up Caldera's arch, the salvaged junk brought in by the salvage trains in Streggeye will also be repurposed, disconnected from any past, original use. In regard to what, then, does Caldera's version of breaking with the past represent a utopian possibility? If it consists in creatively repurposing junk for present purposes, then we need to figure out what this "past" is in order to know exactly what the arc is supposed to be a counter-image to.

The answer to this (perhaps not so difficult) riddle comes near the novel's end. Sham and his comrades make their way to the edge of the railsea and, against all odds, manage to find a way out of it. As the first people in millennia, they cross an ancient bridge stretching over an almost endless chasm and arrive at what appears to be a ghost town. There feral figures appear, headed by a sinister tall man.
    What were they, these dwellers beyond the world? Rag-clad, hulking & shaggy, creeping, sniffing, they loped out of the dust that announced them. Ten, twelve, fifteen figures. Big women & men, all muscle & sinew, baring their teeth, coming on two limbs & four, apelike, wolflike, fatly feline. Staring as they came.
    «We have to go,» Dero said, but they could not get past. The newcomers had reached the base of the jetty. & there they stopped. Their dark clothes were so shredded they looked like feathers. They licked their lips; they stared a long time. ... Something was approaching from the ruins. Seven feet tall, sloped, immense. An ancient, powerful man, of great girth. He wore a repatched dark coat, a tall black hat....
    What looked like a degenerate avatar of the god stepped slowly past his fellows, towards Sham & the others. The jetty shook with his great steps. He licked his face in delight.
Amazingly, it turns out that the man, known as the "Controller", represents the ancient corporation responsible for constructing the railsea. The railsea was in fact once a real ocean that was drained by the corporation to increase marketable real estate. Believing that Sham and his comrades have come to settle their debts at last, the Controller triumphantly presents them with a bill.
Caldera stared at the paper. «This is … more money than there’s ever been in history,» she whispered. «It’s gibberish.» ...
    Abruptly, Sham hated them. He didn’t care that they were lost, too, in thrall to a remorseless drive, the hunger of a company presiding over ruin. That refused to allow the fall & rise of civilisations, the visitations & transformations & leave-takings & rubbish-pickings of aliens, the fall of waters, the poisonings of skies & the mutation of the things in the earth, because of the very actions for which they charged, to intrude on their patient accounting. Endlessly extending terms to a humanity unaware they were in debt, that they had for millennia been buying travel-passes on the never-never. All in the hopes that at the end of time, economies would be back in place to pay.
    «Ghost money in Heaven,» Sham said. «Not ’cause it died — ghosts because it weren’t born yet.» He stared the big man in the face. «We,» he said, «owe you nothing.»
    The controller stared at him. His look of hungry expectation slowly changed. To one of uncertainty. Then slowly to one of misery. & abruptly to one of rage.
    He roared. All the Heaven-dwellers roared. They lurched forward. The jetty rocked as they came. (Miéville 2013: 360-363)
So here, in the person of the Controller, Shame and his comrades finally confront the beast, the last and pitiably remnant of today's global finance capitalism. Written as it was in 2012, it's safe to assume that readers wouldn't have had any difficulties in recognizing in the Controller's snickering face the masters of the debt economy that just a few years earlier had wreaked havoc with global finance, plunging whole populations into debt servitude, and yet, despite the enormity of their fiasco, managed to live on basically unscathed by the crisis. In the ensuing fight on the jetty, Sham manages to push the Controller into the sea and that's the end of capitalism - not with a bang but with a whimper.

Now the picture seems clear. Caldera's liberating ability to start anew is the necessary antithesis to this ridiculous zombie-like capitalism, which refuses to let go of the past and over millennia keeps track of accumulated debts that have become irrelevant to the living. Bronson (2014) is clearly right when he points out that Miéville’s novel "taps into the utopian possibilities of repurposing and recreating the world anew out of the wreckage that remains”.

Yet, the simple opposition between the utopian possibilities of Caldera-style salvage/repurposing and the absurd persistence of Controller-style zombie capitalism is complicated and to some extent undermined by the existence of the far less moribund economy of the railsea, which, as we have seen, is also very capitalist. The facile end of the Controller seems to suggest that finance capitalism is nothing but a parasitical remnant that can easily be removed without any damage to the real, functioning economy. This real economy has, after all, grown up and prospered in blissful ignorance of the Controller and his monstrous corporation for ages. And now it is ready to cast off the shell of the old (the "iron cage", to paraphrase Max Weber, has thus reverted into the "light cloak" it was meant to be). The only problem is that Controller-style capitalism is killed off only to make way for another kind of capitalism, namely the salvage-centred railsea economy. How radically new are the utopian possibilities of salvage if salvage is part and parcel of the latter economy?

This, I believe, is how far Miéville's novel takes us. No doubt it would be possible to continue exploring the ambiguities of salvage by looking closer at other examples. Why not discuss Williams' explorations of salvagepunk in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Anna Tsing's ruminations on salvage in The Mushroom at the End of the World, or perhaps Steven Jackson's discussions of "repair"? Wouldn't it have been helpful also to consult Marxist discussions of how capitalism relies on resources not generated by wage-labour (such as Jason Moore's Capitalism in the Web of Life)? True, true - but discussing these works will have to wait until some other day.

Before I end, I'd like to propose three theses, which I hope will go some way towards clarifying the ambiguity of salvage.

Firstly, although salvage is today a moment in the circulation of capital, it is also grounded in the need of human beings for survival and subsistence. Through its orientation to use value, salvage may offer glimpses in to a possible post-capitalist life. In that sense, it contains the seed of negating, not just the "1%", but also the railsea economy. The fascination with salvage that is evident in post-apocalyptic fiction stems, I suggest, from this seed.

Secondly, a capitalism relying to a large extent on salvage is different from one based on industrial production. This in turn means that anti-capitalist struggles will also look different. Nicholas Beuret and Gareth Brown (2015) have argued that instead of the wage-labourer, the survivor takes central place as the subject of politics in such struggles. Instead of furthering historical progress and economic development, the survivor "dwells within a collapsing world". At the same time, differences between salvage and labour shouldn't be exaggerated. Labour, as Marx reminds us, is what people do when they're deprived of other means of subsistence. In labour we thus see the same ambiguity as in salvage. A person who is forced to work for a wage - a proletarian - is oriented to subsistence and hence to use values, yet works in a system where what counts is exchange value. Like the worker, the salvor takes part in the movement of capital yet retains an orientation to use value from the point of view of which the logic of capital will appear alien. Depite the fact that the salvor is sometimes formally a capitalist or at least not a member of the class of wage-labourers, it is thus possible to see salvage as a site of potential resistance to the logic of capital - and in this sense there is also a potential continuity between struggles waged in the name of labour and salvage.

Finally, whatever utopian possibilities may grow from salvage are only present as a seed. As long as they remain unrealized, salvage per se is perfectly compatible with capitalism of any type. Moishe Postone once criticized a common mistake made by what he called "traditional Marxists", namely that they treated labour as a transhistorical category, extrapolating it into the future post-capitalist society. Against them, he argued that the point of overthrowing capitalism wasn't the liberation of labour, but the liberation from labour, since the category of labour only had meaning within the relations established by capitalism. In similar fashion, we shouldn't idealize salvage, treating it as a transhistorical category that can unproblematically be extrapolated into the future. Salvage as it exists today is no less enmeshed in capitalism than labour, and shouldn't be transposed into the future as a blueprint for a post-capitalist society. But that doesn't mean that it is mere ideology. Utopias, as Miéville (2015) points out in another text, are not meant to be blueprints but dreams that shock us into action by liberating our imagination.


Beuret, Nicholas & Gareth Brown (2015) “Dancing on the Grave: Salvage, The Walking Dead, and the End of Days”, Salvage, 19th of October; (accessed 2017-10-23)

Bronson, Zak (2014) “Reproduce, Reuse, Recycle: the End of the Future, Salvage, and China Miéville’s Railsea”, Researchgate, January 2014; (accessed 2017/12/08).

Miéville, China (2013) Railsea, Pan.

Miéville, China (2015) “The Limits of Utopia”, Salvage Vol. 1, 1st of August; (accessed 2017-10-23).

Williams, Evan Calder (2015) “Salvage”, Journal of American Studies 49(4): 845-859.

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