In his article ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Dipesh Chakrabarty states his third thesis as follows: ‘The Geological Hypothesis Regarding the Anthropocene Requires Us to Put Global Histories of Capital in Conversation with the Species History of Humans’. He follows this by arguing that though ‘it seems true that the crisis of climate change has been necessitated by the high-energy-consuming models of society that capitalist industrialisation has created and promoted’, the contemporary crisis has actually ‘brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connection to the logics of capitalist, nationalist, or socialist identities’. As a result, ‘it is not a crisis for the inorganic planet in any meaningful sense’.
I take issue with two aspects of this argument. First, I dispute the implied separation of the ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ world. Second – and for reasons that will become clearer after fuller exegesis of the first – I take issue with the idea that there can be, what Chakrabarty calls later, ‘parameters of human existence’ that are ‘independent of capitalism or socialism’. In both cases, my repudiation is based on the idea that new form(s) of capitalism have crystallised in the decade since the ‘Theses’ were initially published; as Chakrabarty himself states, ‘Capitalist societies themselves have not remained the same since the beginning of capitalism’, and I argue that in the past decade capitalism has evolved to such an extent that the binaries and parameters Chakrabarty establishes are, if not totally collapsed, then significantly more blurred.
I draw many of the foundational ideas for this reply to Chakrabarty from Mckenzie Wark’s book Capital Is Dead, Is This Something Worse?; Wark argues that capitalism has evolved to such an extent that the word itself may no longer be useful or useable. She cites the constant modification of the word ‘capitalism’ as the first and most obvious piece of evidence for this phenomenon: ‘post-Fordist’ or the more contemporaneously deployed ‘neoliberal capitalism’ are examples of modifiers to the word ‘capitalism’ that themselves also carry modifiers. The word capitalism is no longer ‘good poetry’, claims Wark. She goes on to observe a contemporary world in which ‘everything is transformed into information and resources’, where ‘everything becomes resources in motion, tracked and tagged with information, threaded into logistics’. She adds that ‘not just everyone but everything is tracked and monitored and turned into information’, ‘everything: animal, mineral, vegetable’.
Wark coins two terms which prove important in explaining why her work serves to complicate Chakrabarty’s point of view: the ‘hacker’ and ‘vectoralist’ classes. The vectoralist class is ‘the dominant ruling class of our time’, those people that ‘own and control information’. Contrastingly, the hacker class is the exploited worker that is forced to produce, gather, and organise the information that the vectoralist class then seizes and directs. Wark then draws on Benjamin Bratton’s theoretical model of The Stack to describe how the vectoralist class creates ‘a sophisticated logistics that tracks and manages flows of energy, labour, resources and finished products through them’. At the very bottom of the stack, and most importantly for the thrust of this piece, is ‘the earth layer’: ‘that from which the resources and energy to make and run this whole vast edifice to the digitized commodity are extracted’. Consequently, I argue that there remains no such thing as an “organic” world; the world has been transformed into inorganic information. The earth now exists exclusively as one more ‘layer’ in the global stack, from which the vectoralist class is able to extract raw materials before digitizing and directing them along logistical chains of their design; this is the ‘overdeveloped world’.
Much like Wark, I believe that ‘capitalism’ is no longer a precise enough term to describe the world’s current socio-economic situation. However, I also believe that the current hegemonic ideology constitutes a clear evolution from more traditional ideas of capitalism, and that traces of these contemporary characteristics have been present in literary texts for some time; H. G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ is an example of this. The novel demonstrates how the earth layer (the island) exists only as a site which the vectoralist class (Dr. Moreau and Montgomery) can take control of and subsequently exploit for whatever resources they deem necessary (in this case: isolation from the rest of the world, space for their experimental subjects to roam). They then map the information that they alone own and control (scientific discourse), onto the bodies of lower beings (the animals, the hacker class) whose lives consist solely of acting as a conduit for that information, and a site through which more information can be generated. Thus, the idea itself is not new, but what is new is the globalised reach of this system, powered by increasingly complex technologies, and an awareness of the fact that this system affects all life on earth; it is no longer man enacting informational power over animals in isolation. Now, it is vectoralists enacting it over hackers, animals, plant life, and the planet itself, by transforming them all into inorganic information and logistical chains.
This leads me to my second point of contestation with Chakrabarty: if the entire world, the so-called organic earth itself, its rocks and minerals, vegetables, and animals have all been transformed into information to be deployed in a logistical chain, is it still technically possible for there to be any viable ‘parameters’ that exist ‘independent of capitalism’? According to Wark’s model, this kind of capitalism can have no “outside”; this new type of capitalism is so overdeveloped that the idea of an ‘organic’ realm, a realm entirely separate from hegemonic capitalistic ideology in any meaningful or measurable way becomes impossible or, at the very least, unimaginable. I do not argue that ‘the talk of species or mankind simply serves to hide the reality of capitalist production and its logistics’ that are, quite rightly, ‘machinic in a Deleuzian sense’. Rather, I argue that the Deleuzian machine of Wark’s brand of capitalism and the vectors therein so powerfully transform the planet and all its so-called organic creations that trying to think “outside” of that wholly inorganic system is an ill-fated struggle. As the title of the opening chapter of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – attributed variously to both Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek – suggests, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. In the same way that Jakob von Uexküll describes the subjective environmental ‘bubble’ that all creatures exist within, ‘that encloses each and every one of us on all sides’, I believe that the ideological bubble of capitalism, into which we are all interpellated from birth, cannot be burst by interaction with parameters that supposedly exist outside of it; the bubble must be burst from the inside.
At this point my argument takes a more speculative turn, a turn that I confess is not yet fully formed. However, for the reasons explored above, I argue that the key ‘conversation between disciplines’ that Chakrabarty calls for will not be between ‘recorded and deep histories of human beings’, but between this new kind of capitalism and fiction, wherein literary texts are used as tools with which those ‘futures’ that ‘we cannot visualise’ otherwise could enter the popular imagination. Though a text like Moreau undoubtedly shows the beginnings of this idea, I would argue it is taken up with greater precision in late twentieth century sci-fi texts such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer or J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Though ecologies, the so-called organic earth, and the climate crisis itself are rarely given explicit emphasis in these texts, this is one of their most poignant effects; by building worlds in which information, technology, and logistics are fetishized and accelerated to pervasiveness, not only is the so-called organic world accurately if wrongfully erased from the horizon of human thought, but the logics that underpin contemporary capitalism are stretched to such an extent that their flaws and gaps become only too apparent.
Exposing these fissures in capitalism’s logics provides an inlet through which alternatives may re-enter the collective imagination and, in time, burst capital’s ideological bubble. As Fisher neatly summarises: ‘from a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again’.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry, 35.2, (Winter 2009), 197-222
Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009)
Uexküll, Jakob von, A Foray into The Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)
Wark, McKenzie, Capital Is Dead, Is This Something Worse?, (London: Verso, 2019)
‘Capital is Dead, McKenzie Wark in Conversation with Verso Books’, last accessed 27 February 2020, <youtube.com>
Wells, H. G., ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, The Island of Doctor Moreau and Other Stories, (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2017)