Brainless, Impersonal, Implacable

Dark clouds over the Caribbean, Chicxulub beach July 21, 2021

No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life and our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed, if commoning has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject.

—Sylvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (PM Press: 2019) p. 110

In Marx’s masterwork, Capital, volume I, the abstract and impersonal power of capital is itself an historical actor, a self-developing subject. Its value form is “the dominant subject of this process.” The increasing hegemony of its value form over all of social life grinds down into subjection the living human subject, the worker.

—Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press: 2016) p. 171

…The social dynamics of impersonal power … are intrinsic to capital as the alienated subject of the historical movement of modern society… the reproduction of the human life process under capitalism is a concrete form of an essentially inverted form of existence where the object dominates the subject… workers are subsumed into capital, becoming a particular mode of its existence.

—Martín Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism (Verso Books: 2020) p. 59 and 82

Who, or what, is the subject of history? Is anyone running the show, or are we on a runaway train with no exit? As these epigraphs indicate, Capital is the self-developing subject of modern life, but it is a subject with no brain, no feelings, no purpose other than the unending expansion of value. Its priests and acolytes concoct endless ideological cloaks to justify and explain the necessity of subordination to this stony, impersonal, and seemingly irresistible force. Their preposterous claims that the world is wealthier and happier than ever require an acrobatic process of forgetting the genocide and slavery that started this whole process, and then “unseeing” the millions of starving, water-less, landless destitute, the countless homeless camping in the streets of rich cities, the climate refugees beginning their peripatetic search for new homes.

Far from creating the material conditions for the transition to communism, as Marx imagined, capitalism has produced scarcity on a global scale. It has devalued the activities by which our bodies and minds are reconstituted after being consumed in the work process and has overworked the earth to the point that it is increasingly incapable of sustaining our life.

Federici, p. 189

I’ve spent the last quarter century trying to stimulate the sense of historical agency that everyone embodies, or ought to. I think each of us is an historical actor, every day and all the time! The central idea is that if we were to reclaim our ability to determine our shared fate, an ability that requires an engaged sense of agency and its potential power, we could find a way to consciously choose the path forward for our lives. My work with grassroots bottom-up history via Shaping San Francisco has its own roots in my life-long rejection of the organization of society, from the mind-numbing busywork I faced in elementary school to the absurdities of wage-labor. Self-employment gained me a modicum of independence, but it did nothing to affect the larger arrangement of society, which if anything, has grown demonstrably worse in my years.

In 2008 I published Nowtopia, which tried to locate an emergent subject in the work people were doing outside of wage-labor, where they were able engage their full humanity and creativity, deciding the purpose, design, and outcome of their own activity. In this analysis I was still groping for a way to shoehorn the working class into a role in its own liberation. Now, almost a decade and a half after I wrote the book, most of the initiatives I described remain marginal at best. In no way could it be said that a new recomposed working-class is emerging outside of paid work, where it is laying the foundations for a liberated life. In that hopeful analysis, at least up to now, I was dead wrong.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl flying east from Mexico City.

I still think work is central to our lives for better and worse. The plethora of recent writings on work, some of which I’ve taken up in past posts (here, here, here) reinforces the centrality of the crisis we face. That said, it’s pretty clear by now that seeking unity at work is seldom achieved, usually temporary, and a shared vision of a better life beyond that workplace, job, or industry can barely be said to have ever existed! As Arboleda said in the epigraph, workers have become so embedded in a capitalist division of labor that they embody a particular mode of capital’s existence. That existence has become so fragmented, atomized, and deskilled that we have to agree with Sylvia Federici’s description: “there is only one logic… to form a labor force reduced to abstract labor, pure labor power, with no guarantees, no protections, ready to be moved from place to place and job to job, employed mostly through short-term contracts and at the lowest possible wage.”

I have been trying to reset my thinking lately. Obviously nature looms large in that, between my posts on plants and forests, and my ongoing focus on the relationship between work and nature. My old friend Sylvia Federici, a long-time feminist, Marxist and member of Midnight Notes and author of many books, has reckoned with the more obvious failures of Marx, especially his obliviousness to the most important form of work of all, producing human beings! She also notes his myopia regarding the vast life beyond industrializing Europe: “In 1867, Marx did not see the power emerging from the communal organization of life of millions in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. This failure remains a key element of Marxist thought to this day.”

But writing in Marx at the Margins, Kevin B. Anderson suggests that by the 3rd French edition of Capital (the last one Marx personally edited) in the 1870s, he was intellectually on the move. This is important because it separates Marx from the encrusted rigidities that have caricatured his thinking in the years after he died. Some of that was the editorial choices of Engels who published Capital Vols. II and III based on Marx’s notebooks, and even more of it was the result of so much of Marx’s thinking remaining unpublished and/or untranslated until late in the 20th century. The rigid stage-ist theory of capitalist development is largely a product of the stodgy theoreticians of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals; their ideological hegemony over working class politics in the 20th century was nearly complete. Anderson uncovers evidence that Marx already had moved beyond such thinking:

Marx … created a multilinear and non-reductionist theory of history … analyzed the complexities and differences of non-Western societies, and … refused to bind himself into a single model of development or revolution… In direct and clear language, Marx now stated that the transition outlined in the part on primitive accumulation [in Capital] applied only to Western Europe. In this sense, the future of non-Western societies was open, was not determined by that of Western Europe… Just as his theory of social development evolved in a more multilinear direction, so his theory of revolution began over time to concentrate increasingly on the intersectionality of class with ethnicity, race, and nationalism. To be sure, Marx was not a philosopher of difference in the postmodernist sense, for the critique of a single overarching entity, capital, was at the center of his entire intellectual enterprise.

Anderson, p. 237-244

I started reading Marx in 1978 and am far from a scholar or a marxologist. But right away I engaged in some lively debates in my university class with a libertarian professor, and was able to use Marx’s writings to debunk some of the claims he was making. Going back at least to Lenin and the Russian Revolution, but probably considerably further back, Marxism was reduced to a series of clichés and a ponderous, step-by-step inevitable march from feudalism to mercantilism to capitalism. After capitalism [and industrialization] had done its necessary modernizing, the conditions for a transition to socialism and then communism would be in place, a transition that according to orthodox Marxism required passage through capitalism. Capitalism would bring workers together in vast productive facilities that would require their cooperative labor to sustain. And once assembled, they would soon come to see through their own objectivization and seize back their own active role as producers who could plan and direct their own activity. Sylvia Federici helps break through this:

…we can work with Marx’s categories, but we must reconstruct them and change their architectural order, so that the center of gravity is not exclusively wage labor and commodity production but the production and reproduction of labor power, especially that part of it that is carried out by women in the home. For in doing so, we make visible a new terrain of accumulation and struggle, as well as the full extent of capital’s dependence on unpaid labor and the full length of the working day.

Federici, p. 155

This reorientation not only decenters the hegemonic importance of the industrial worker, but provides a vital window into how capital has always separated and divided people into genders, races, and nationalities in order to maintain its upper hand. Moreover, it underscores the indispensable role of free labor in beginning the accumulation process and in maintaining it up to the present.

Flamingos near Chicxulub on Yucatan northern coast.

While Marx was still alive it was not uncommon for early wage-workers to describe themselves as wage-slaves. Slavery takes many forms, especially in the modern world. Coerced labor, either by violence, debt, or the simple exploitation of surplus labor through “regular” wage relations, remains the overwhelming source of profitability in the world.

As Marxian interpretations of colonialism and slavery have recently shown, modern capitalist relations based on the commodification of labor-power are not anathema or even an iteration of a more developed form of the bondage and direct coercion that defined chattel slavery. The two coexist as an amalgamated, organic whole.

Arboleda, p. 103

Marx and Engels did not mention slavery in their sketch of capitalist development in The Communist Manifesto. A little over a year earlier, however, in a letter of December 28, 1846, to a Russian friend, Pavel V. Annenkov, Marx suggests that slavery and capitalism were intimately connected. Writing in French, he refers to “the slavery of the Blacks [des Noirs] in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America.” He writes further: “Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit. Etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. . . Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”

Anderson, p. 83

In an engaging and often hilarious book investigating the horrors of the modern supermarket, Benjamin Lorr wraps up his account with a closer look at the direct slavery that even today produces many of the products on our supermarket shelves:

The more [Humanity United, an anti-slavery NGO] looked, the more they were stunned. Slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor were not extinct in our world, nor were they limited vestiges enabled by the chaos of war; they were vital forces underpinning the global economy. Over 35 million people per year work under coercion, more than in the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade, and their labor is responsible for some $150 billion on profits per year [producing common products like chocolate, coffee, shrimp, beef, cotton, sugar, and palm oil]. Sex slaves, like the women in Darfur, represent less than a quarter. In many ways, the horror is so vast that it risks overwhelming anyone who learns about it…

Benjamin Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket (PenguinRandomHouse: 2020), p. 249-250

Capitalism could not exist without the vast profits that are generated on the backs of slave labor, whether in Asian palm oil plantations, Thai shrimp farms, African cocoa plantations, or Central American coffee farms. Every year or two another group of enslaved workers are freed from a sweatshop or brothel in the United States, or a group of merchant seamen imprisoned on a container ship are finally pried free. But in the everyday “normal” operations of modern work, insidious forms of coercion operate in ways that makes revolt seem nearly impossible. For example, once upon a time the Teamsters were a feared national union that could bring the country to a screeching halt with their collective action. Today, while the Teamsters are still a big union, the trucking industry they once dominated has been largely restructured in ways that I could not believe. Lorr dissected it in his supermarket book:

… over the last ten years industry turnover in trucking has ranged between 95 to 112 percent… One hundred percent turnover in the trucking industry means that every single member of a fleet either retired or quit or was fired and was successfully replaced that year. One hundred twelve percent turnover for a given fleet means that cycle repeated more than once… What appears to be happening is that the industry has figured out not only how to make humans replaceable but also how to make money off their replacement. The labor shortage is profitable. Recruiting rapaciously and dishonestly, convincing recruits to take out lines of credit for the opportunity, and then paying those new recruits the lowest possible wages for the labor—they call these “training rates”—all work synergistically. I am told by various industry observers that the trucking industry earns its highest profits on student drivers. They then use the accrued debt as a tool to force the driver to work at these rates far longer than they would otherwise. When I described trucking as structurally vampiric, turnover is the force that creates the suction.

Lorr, p. 98
The Magnificent Frigatebird soaring along Chicxulub coast.

In another passage, Federici perfectly describes the evolution of work that neoliberalism has imposed with its privatization of everything:

Instead of work, exploitation, and above all ‘bosses,’ so prominent in the world of smokestacks, we now have debtors confronting not an employer but a bank and confronting it alone, not as part of a collective body and collective relationship, as was the case with wage-workers. In this way, workers’ resistance is diffused, economic disasters acquire a moralistic dimension, and the function of debt as an instrument of labor extraction is masked, as we have seen, under the illusion of self-investment.

Federici, p. 64

We are faced with an intractable, impersonal logic in the form of capital. It takes on the role of the subject directing the flow of history, at the expense of countless millions of actual human beings. The possibility of reorganizing our lives on a different basis must find its inspiration outside of wage-labor, outside of modern capitalist work. We may have to reorganize and redirect some of the complex infrastructure that sustains life for now (water, power, communications), but in the long run the task is not about economics, it’s about whether or not humans can come together as a new common subject, capable of facing an implacable and violent Capital.

Reorienting our lives towards the production and care of humans and nature is the key change, centering ourselves around regeneration, restoration, and renewal. There are many elements of this reorientation already underway. The Covid crisis sent millions of people home from work, and quite a large number decided to change how they live in the interregnum. Many women are staying out of the workforce, realizing that caring for their children or elders is far more satisfying and “valuable” than any pixel pushing or cash-register-punching job they had before.


Vibrant social movements continue to proliferate across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. At the beginning of Planetary Mine, Martín Arboleda offered this tantalizing hint:

In the case of primary-commodity production, it is the actual encounter between indigenous, campesino, and women’s groups with scientists, artists, and engineers—itself an encounter between vernacular science and modern science—that has triggered some of the most hopeful political forces in contemporary Latin America.

Arboleda, p. 28

Federici also points to these movements as kernals of the new world:

By ‘disenchantment’ [Max] Weber referred to the vanishing of the religious and the sacred from the world. But we can interpret his warning in a more political sense, as referring to the emergence of a world in which our capacity to recognize the existence of a logic other than that of capitalist development is every day more in question…struggles aiming to re-ruralize the world—e.g., through land reclamation, the liberation of rivers from dams, resistance to deforestation, and, central to all, the revalorization of reproductive work—are crucial to our survival. These are the condition not only of our physical survival but of a ‘re-enchantment’ of the earth, for they reconnect what capitalism has divided: our relation with nature, with others, and with our bodies, enabling us not only to escape the gravitational pull of capitalism but to regain a sense of wholeness in our lives.

Federici, p. 188-189

Arboleda cites the brilliant Uruguayan Raul Zibechi’s description of some of the unifying qualities of the social movements appearing across the global south:

First, they are concerned with appropriating and repurposing space: squatting, occupations, and blockades are some of the tactics employed to recuperate land and remodel sociospatial relations. Second, these struggles seek autonomy from the state and traditional political parties. Third, they are premised on the assertion and revalorisation of ethnic, popular, and/or gendered identities that are radically at odds with those of capitalist heteropatriarchy. Fourth, these communes are “pedagogical projects” in their own right because they frequently involve training their own organic intellectuals and producing their own vernacular scientific knowledge about the world. Fifth, women tend to play important roles as organizers, and the concept of the family is expanded beyond private spaces to become mobilized both as a polity and productive unit. Finally, these emerging forms of territorial politics are generally concerned with reinventing relations of production beyond the vertical and hierarchical nature of the Taylorist organizational form… It would appear that the evolving forms of revolutionary consciousness among these communities (in both Asia and Latin America) have as their foundation the precapitalist, culturally specific, and noncommodified elements of individuals. [emphasis added]

Arboleda, p. 222 and 229

Recent developments in Chile, among other places, are quite inspiring. An indigenous woman (Mapuche), also a university professor, is the head of a new constitutional convention to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution. We’ll see what comes of it, but the fact that 12% of the delegates are indigenous, more than half are women, and the main political parties have very few elected delegates, all bodes well. Arboleda’s book focuses on the massive reconfiguration of northern Chile to mining to meet the voracious needs of Chinese industry for raw materials, and that economic boom has produced its own opposition. How will those social movements affect the political process? How will indigenous women shape the new order? It’s actually quite hopeful.

Sunset over the Mexican Caribbean.

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