‘In these spacious halls the benignant power of steam summons around him his myriads of willing menials’- Andrew Ure
‘Governance by numbers…rather than release us from the fantasy of the governing machine, it intensifies this fantasy and ensnares managers and workers alike in feedback loops governed by numerical representations of the world increasingly disconnected from experience’- Alain Supiot
This essay is in two parts. Firstly we trace the history of capitalism in general and show that is has been conceptualised as a force that compels individuals to produce for the market. As this system has expanded, this alien force begins to resemble an emergent entity, complete with physical body and brain.Secondly, we identify a specific node of this entity we call capital, that no longer causes death as the unfortunate side-effect of the production process, but demands human death in the service of not only productivity but its very existence.
The birth of capitalism two centuries ago was an unnatural act of cultural witchcraft. Capitalism did not spring from the ground fully formed, nor was it an organic inevitability. It was birthed by the sanction of The State who hypocritically made laissez faire the rule for the upper classes and merchants while simultaneously sending in the army to put down the working classes who organised freely and marched not for nostalgia, but for the dignity to live a life free from starvation. Capitalism’s most ardent defenders often deny this vital step in its legitimacy. They claim that capitalism is merely trade, an activity that goes back into antiquity. This is propaganda of the highest order; as it does not nominally defend an ideology, but denies that the ideology even exists. This denial has become ever more desperate even as the invisible hand of the market sharpens it claws.
Capitalism from the outset is defined as a system that appears to operate externally to the agents involved, one that demands a ‘systemic compulsion to transform production’ (Meiksins Wood 2017, p76). The distinction between commercial trade and capitalism, as Ellen Meiksins Wood outlines, is that classic trade involves merchants looking for opportunities, whereas capitalism is imperative of the market on the merchant. Karl Marx wrote of capital’s ‘immanent drive’ towards productivity by any means necessary, suggesting there was a systemic logic of parasitism to capitalism. Thus his literary description of capital as ‘vampire-like, [that] only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’, is no mere metaphor but a way to emphasise capitalism’s alien quality.
Capitalism was not a continuity, a gradual replacement of the feudal system by the bourgeois, but a rupture in relationships of production that simultaneously manifested in our very social consciousness. Pre and non-capitalist societies have markets, but capitalism tore the market from society and allowed it to operate in a sphere of its own, no longer regulated by societies customs. Where regulation did occur, it was, although seemingly paradoxical, an aid to the new system as it prevented the market from annihilating society completely (Polanyi, 1944). It is also important to note here that while prior to capitalism, markets had been kept in check by strong social custom, the new era of corporatist class politics made the state the primary arena in which to keep capitalism in check. Moderate social gains, which culminated for western Europe in the post-war social contract of the 1940s, presupposed a loyalty to the same State that had been midwife to the system people fought against.
To summarise, the market economy in capitalism is both conceived as and truly does act as an external force on individual behaviour. It is both ideological and immanent. However, even the classical liberals recognised that this conception of the market as a self-regulating sphere was a necessary fiction and that there needed to be limits, such as preventing child labour and eventually a de-commodified welfare system. Now, in the age of neoliberalism, where everything including our very identities become subject to a market, fiction becomes real.
Capitalism has a very real existence in the physical world. The social division of labour is the skeletal frame on which all else is built on. Circuits of commodities traded across the world are the lifeblood. The state is the heart, powerful but not directing. Finance, manifested as particles of light zipping through worldwide wires, are the neurons of this monster, causing pain receptors to glow red when markets crash.
What makes neoliberalism so disturbing, according to Alan Supiot, is that planning and organisation ‘is now akin to a biological norm..or a computer program…it results from the interaction of individual calculation and it operates from within’ (2017, p.116). In our description of the body of capital there can be no metaphor for the brain, for the brain is something always in the becoming.
Coronacapitalism-The Mask is off.
If there was one positive to be gleaned from the outbreak of coronavirus, it was that the fabric of capitalist realism, that idea that we could imagine the end of the world more clearly than we could imagine the end of capitalism, seemed to be, if not torn, then pierced. Governments, who had been fecklessly outsourcing their farts for the previous two decades, were forced to act. At first, some simply thought that saying “wash your hands” was good enough. But as the severity deepened, and for the first time in living memory, the shelves of capitalist supermarkets were empty, there seemed to be a growing realisation that we could not simply let the market fix it.
And then they let the market fix it.
There were horrors among horrors as countries from the so-called “developed” world stubbornly refused to act decisively. OECD statistics, trumpeted for years as the Olympic medal tables of modernity, were now worthless chunks of brass when it came to predicting how a polity would react in a pandemic. What was the point of a high GDP if when the shit hits the fan you can’t even protect your own citizens? Assuming that is, that they wanted to.
It has become commonplace for the establishment to talk about the economy as though it were a living thing. At times it has felt as though economy was some kind of domestic animal that we as a society look after. In the early days of the pandemic, newsreaders wondered about the economy in these terms, “what’s going to happen to the economy?” they said, in tones resembling a child asking their parents whether their little fuzzy bunny rabbit would be ok at the neighbour’s house.
As the weeks and months wore on though, it became clear that the economy was not our pet. We were its beasts of burden. Economy was no longer spoken of as though it was a dumb animal. Economy was now a demon.
It became apparent when the newsreaders began to invoke him as a reason why people had to disobey the scientific advice to stay inside. Economy demanded it. The utter madness of governments encouraging people to go to restaurants in the middle of a pandemic. Economy demanded it. When they herded children into warm petri-dish schools under threat of fines. Economy demanded it.
It might once have been said that we need to keep the economy alive because the economy itself keeps people alive; No one even dares to lie like this any more. Capitalism no longer needs justification for its discipline. The elite sphere that once manufactured consent to the system was so successful in making capitalism seem like common sense, that it failed to reproduce its own intellectual cadre. The establishment no longer defend capitalism as a economic system, indeed they are embarrassed to talk about it, thus creating the contemporary phenomenon where the word capitalism is only invoked by those who criticise it. The establishment do not make intellectual economic arguments anymore, they can only defend the status quo.
Surplus Labour becomes Surplus Humanity
‘this [industrial reserve] force by the most inhuman toil, during the other part of the year he lets it starve for lack of work’ (Marx, p.608)
Capitalism does not need nor desire full employment. The compulsion to increase productivity means that capitalists favour investment constant capital (machines and raw materials) over variable capital (human labour), thus constant capital grows at a faster rate, meaning unemployment. This has a functional benefit to capitalism as this “reserve army”, being deprived of regular work, is much more likely to accept work at any condition, and thus weaken the ability for labour to organise collectively. On a similar note, Kalyan Sanyal argued that alongside the reserve army, accumulation created a wasteland of people excluded not just from employment but from the entire reserve/work system. Capital needs malleable living labour in reserve, but if this army becomes too big, it becomes a political problem, one that could threaten the very system.
Untimely death, through starvation, overwork, poor safety conditions, and a myriad other ways has always been a direct cause of capitalist division of labour and the prioritization of profit and productivity. Capitalism needs life to sustain it, but if people die in the process, it is unconcerned as long as there is enough living labour to pursue the next round of accumulation.
Capitalism in general does not care if people live or die. Demonic capitalism demands that people die.
That governments in 2020 failed to protect their citizens is not simply the unfortunate externality of a uncaring market. The scale of the pandemic meant that in order to protect citizens governments would have had to radically alter not only the material but the ideological foundations of what an economy is. It was almost as if capitalism had been preparing for this moment for decades, inculcating the establishment in the sanctity of property. When the time came, the idea that we could have a full lockdown and appropriate basic resources as part of a commonwealth was not dismissed, because it never crossed their minds. Instead of strict rules and decommodified necessities, governments policy resembled a bizarre patchwork of half measures, all of which existed under the ‘common-sense’ of capitalist ideology. Thousands have died. Demonic capitalism required it because for those people to live would have meant a rupture its own existence.
Demonic capitalism is not new or novel to this year. Capitalism has demanded death before, especially in as it makes landfall in the Imperial periphery, in the form of anti-labour death squads that prefigure a calibration beneficial to capital. Demonic capital in response to events such as a global pandemic or climate change is a scale of magnitude higher, in that death is needed not only to secure profits for a cadre of capitalists but because humane responses to global crisis would represent existential threats to capitalism. To save people from the pandemic or climate change would require us to think about the economy in terms of resource distribution rather than growth. This is unacceptable to capitalism and so it reacts by demanding death instead.
We need to change the way we talk about the Capitalist Economy
Is capitalism really a demon? If by demon you mean evil supernatural being, then no it is not real. It inhabits the same mechanical world that we do. On the other hand, to treat the word demon as just a metaphor robs the ontology of both theoretical and affective bite, for their truly is a ghost in the machine now, that to all extents and purposes operates with a self-sustaining logic.
Conceptualised as an autonomous self reproducing system in search of profits by any means necessary, Capital has become “an inhuman intelligence with its own logic and its own goals”. As these goals are anti-human and have started to demand sacrifices, the rules of taxonomy demand we call this emergent entity a demon. This is not to downplay the agency or the actions of the capitalists and the establishment, but in order to adequately describe their mindset and behaviour we must call them a death cult. By naming economy as a demonic entity we can fight it with the irreverence it deserves. One does not negotiate with a demon, one does not reason with it or ask it nicely to slow down.
It is time to exorcise the E͏̡̦̥̪̻̤̘̺͇͝ͅc̡҉̱̙̗̮̼̫̫͜͜͡o̧̥̳̪͉͔͜͜ņ̵͈̩͈ͅo̸̸̞̞͈̯̘̖̰̤̲̟̗̞̹̞͎͉͙͘ͅm̸̖͇̲̝̗̱̬̝͝ͅy͎͚̱͎͈͖̣̬͉̲̻̱͘͜͝.
Ewan Cameron is a teacher and writer based in the UK and Myanmar
Original Artwork by aetria
Marx, K. (1976) Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Fowkes, B. (trans). Penguin.
Sanyal, K. (2007) Rethinking Capitalist Development. Routledge.
Supiot, A. (2015) Governance by Numbers. The Making of a Legal Model of Allegiance. Bloomsbury. London
Thompson, E. P. (1968) The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage Books
Ure, A. (1835) The Philosophy of Manufacturers.
Wright, I. (2020) Prolegomena to a demonology of capitalism. Available at https://ianwrightsite.wordpress.com/2020/03/05/prologomena-to-a-demonology-of-capitalism/
Wood, E. M. (2017) The Origin of Capitalism. Verso.