Leaving the Twenty First Century

November 20, 2013


Nobody could now match those thumbnail portraits of the big picture that Marx could write, but one has to try. Let’s start with the sun, with its energy, stroking the planet, and the warmth of its light, trapped by the atmosphere – the greenhouse effect. A sun whose energy fuels so much of life, past and present. A life which we now know changed the atmosphere itself, its composition, and its heat-trapping capacity. A life which changes geology itself. Those fossil fuels are memory of sun.

Fast-forward to the moment. Here we are, tearing through the backlog of those combustible fossils like there is no tomorrow. They fuel, among other things, three kinds of surplus. Those of time, of information, of life itself; and three kinds of struggle, over who controls those surpluses, and to what end.

Labour unions: the folks who brought you the weekend! Labour struggled to wrest free time from capital, and won – at least for a while. But what made that victory possible besides labour’s resolve was that surplus, of the sun, trapped in fuels, applied to industry, augmenting labour. Capital’s counterstrike was the culture industry, and the capture of that free time, most effectively by television, and now by the myriad screens of a disparate spectacle, which together with work and sleep consumed the largest share of day and night.

It looked for a while as if the Internet might free that chunk of surplus time, that television time, from the consumption of spectacle, and deliver it over to the free, non-alienated production of social life. But it was not to be. In place of the culture industries, we have the vulture industries, which feed off the free labour of net time and commodify it again. But the struggle is not over, and one of the resources of the moment with which to struggle against metabolic rift and mode of production that produce it is a certain margin of surplus time.

A parallel story might recount the struggle over surplus information. The digital makes the relation between information and its material form arbitrary, freeing it from the property form, enabling a far greater distribution and cross-referencing than was ever imaginable with mere mechanical reproducibility. With information, everything can belong to everyone, and every bit of it can link to every other bit.

If it was the workers who freed time, it was the hackers who freed information, or at least some of it. By ‘hackers’ I mean that class of scientific, technical and aesthetic creators whose industry is converted into ‘intellectual property’ that in most cases they themselves no longer own or control. Not owning the means of production, they like workers have to sell the capacities. Unlike labour, their output is more of a qualitative than a quantifiable nature. Hackers make new arrangements of information rather than additional units of a commodity. They give form to the commodity rather than stamp out new units of that form.

The ruling class counter-attack uses the digital against itself, artificially restraining the free flow of information, binding it to even more restrictive property forms. The struggle then is between the new commons of the hackers or a new fief of the ruling class, a ‘cloud’ for which we have to pay for the privilege of retrieving fragments of our own knowledge and culture. Either way, the digital domain is also a product of surplus, of the sun, its legacy of stored energy, powering those server farms.

After the struggle over the surplus of time and the surplus of information comes another, which like them is undergirded by a surplus of energy, but in some respects it changes the game: the struggle over surplus life. The goal is to extract a rent from the life sciences rather than sciences like chemistry, and not from owning the industrial apparatus of molecular transformation, such as the fertiliser industry, but from owning the design of productive organisms as intellectual property. Not that there aren’t scientists who struggle against the extraction of surplus directly from life, but the means are in place to make life itself productive within the commodity form.

Again, as with the surplus of time in everyday life, of information within cultural creation, the surplus of life extracted from the life sciences runs on the same fuels. At the end of the day it all comes back to the sun, which Andrey Platonov called the “worldwide proletarian,” and that stored sun that is fossilised carbon. It’s the base for all our superstructures. Our general economy is solar. We live on the energy of surplus sunlight.

There is a lively debate on whether extraction of stored sunlight from the oil and gas fields and coal mines has peaked or not. It’s bad news either way. If it has, the era of easy energy is over, and with it the surplus and the struggles over it. If it hasn’t, the metabolic rift opening up through the release of carbon into the atmosphere might crash the totality of the climate system. And yet this mode of production – is it still even capitalist? – goes on as if there were no limit.

It is as if the ‘real’ Platonic form that was capital had detached itself from appearances, from the hard matter of everyday life, and revealed their falsity. These worldly things, this whole Earth, falls short of the one that capital imagines as its plaything. It has commanded already, and in advance, more Earths than this one. There is not enough base for its gleaming superstructures, not even if capital were to annex Mars as well. Hypocritical theory was at least half right: capital imagines that the superstructures are all that matter, but from the point of view of labour, that which lies beneath it and provides the surplus on which it feeds is emerging in our time as somewhat more worthy of attention.

But let’s not depress ourselves too much. Rather, let’s ask: how might the surplus of time, of information, of life itself, be organised differently? That might be a task for a no longer quite so hypocritical theory. There might still be a role for the things it teaches, such as the arts of reading, even if a more constructive rather than suspicious mode of reading might be what the times require, and as a way to read a different kind of text. Ones more about metabolic rifts than theories of the subject; more about the culture of self-organisation of working people than about the bourgeois classics; more about molecular flows, of water and grain and shit, than of great political dramas; one simply more base in its tastes, more stinky even than that artisanal cheese.

Let’s use the time and information and everyday life still available to us to begin the task, quietly but in good cheer, of thinking otherwise, of working and experimenting, for when the going gets weird. Let’s begin with a close (or close enough) reading of texts that come like messages in a bottle, across the sandy seas, from another time when the going got weird, a century ago. If we are to leave the twenty-first century before it takes leave of us, then perhaps we might learn a thing or two from the great attempt at leaving the twentieth century, and before it had hardly begun.

By McKenzie Wark | @mckenziewark


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