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; http://salvage.zone/in-print/dancing-on-the-grave-salvage-the-walking-dead-and-the-end-of-days/ (accessed 2017-10-23)

Bronson, Zak (2014) “Reproduce, Reuse, Recycle: the End of the Future, Salvage, and China Miéville’s Railsea”, Researchgate, January 2014; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317175893 (accessed 2017/12/08).

Miéville, China (2013) Railsea, Pan.

Miéville, China (2015) “The Limits of Utopia”, Salvage Vol. 1, 1st of August; http://salvage.zone/in-print/the-limits-of-utopia/ (accessed 2017-10-23).

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

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