PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

To the Vector the Spoils: On McKenzie Wark's 'Capital Is Dead'

In a brave new world dominated by platforms such as Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb, and marked by anxiety in the Age of the Anthropocene, McKenzie Wark's Capital Is Dead eschews digital utopianism for a sense of urgency that recognizes things have gotten serious.

Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?
McKenzie Wark

Verso Books

October 2019


Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? is a sequel to McKenzie Wark's highly influential 2004 book, A Hacker Manifesto. Like its predecessor, Capital Is Dead surveys the mental, social, and physical environment in which the means of economic accumulation and thus power have radically shifted, in which value no longer resides in owning the means of production but in controlling flows of information.

Wark picks up the narrative begun in A Hacker Manifesto in which conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has been superseded by the domination of the hacker (creators of new concepts and connections) by the vectoralist (so named for their control of the networks through which information flows in space and time). The latter not only capture the physical output of the former's labor, but appropriate their very being, as well. And it isn't just workers who are being subordinated, it's traditional industrialists, too—Facebook has a market value of some $550 billion, nearly ten times that of General Motors, with a fraction of the employees and virtually none of the infrastructure.

Coming a decade and a half after A Hacker Manifesto, in a brave new world dominated by platforms such as Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb, and marked by anxiety in the Age of the Anthropocene, Capital Is Dead eschews digital utopianism for a sense of urgency that recognizes things have gotten serious. An important part of the book is its critique of what Wark terms 'genteel' Marxism. These truly academic ruminations emerged out of the 1970s with the failure of the New Left. These were often-tenured 'radicals' ensconced in university comparative literature, philosophy, and cultural studies departments, or what she has time and again referred to as 'hypo-critical theory'.

Instead, Wark offers 'four cheers for vulgarity' (the vulgar always goes a step too far) that originates not just from below but from 'below the below'. Here, Wark follows John Bellamy Foster, who in Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature and other books, argues that the error of Western Marxism of the genteel variety has been its focus on dialectics to the detriment of consideration of the material. Like Foster, Wark retrieves the lineage of left materialists, such as mid-20th-century biologist Joseph Needham and contemporary science and technology scholar Donna Haraway, who have embraced the science that critical theorists have rejected. This work is summarily recounted in Capital Is Dead but gone into greater depth in Wark's earlier book, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene.

The distinction Wark makes of the vectoralist class vs. the capitalist is its power not to actually own anything but to simply extract enormous profit from various flows of value.

A major question is that of the book's title: In what way can we say that capital is dead, especially in light of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the aftermath of which British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that 'there is no alternative' to capitalism? Wark's answer is to engage in a thought experiment in which she reviews the various modifiers that have been appended to the word capitalism—'disaster', 'neoliberal', 'postfordist', 'necro', 'communicative', 'surveillance', 'platform', et. al—terms that take capitalism as an eternal concept, or perhaps more accurately as a kind of undead. (In fact, 'zombie' is yet another modifier appended to the concept of capitalism in recent times.)

Wark takes a flamethrower to these ideas through a reading of Marx that burns away the metaphors of phantasmagorical fetishes, such as the commodity form, the spectacle, and false consciousness, that have occupied much critical theory to date. She gets down to what is generally referred to as the 'base', although not the one typically taken as situated in the economic means of production but instead the one at the root of what Marx in the less-often read Volume III of Capital refers to as the 'irreparable rift' in what he terms 'the universal metabolism' of nature.

The 'metabolic rift', as it's come to be known among ecotheorists, is Marx's premise that humankind's original disruption, to use the term in its contemporary business sense, is the extraction of the Earth's organic and inorganic resources for circulation in closed systems that don't reconnect with their point of origin, AKA the linear economy of make, use, dispose. The metabolic rift widened with the agricultural revolutions of 19th century that drove the need for artificial fertilizers to forestall soil depletion. Advances in agricultural productivity at the time also released cadres of labor to fuel the growth of industrialization and urbanization, further widening the rift.

For Wark, the metabolic rift from feudal agriculture to capitalist manufacturing has now entered a third phase: vectoralist information, the privatization of codes and data of every form, including genetic. The distinction Wark makes of the vectoralist class vs. the capitalist is its power not to actually own anything but to simply extract enormous profit from various flows of value. (Think of platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, or TaskRabbit where the majority of costs are carried by the users on both sides of the equation or Facebook, where users entertain one another and the data derived are then sold to advertisers.)

Wark employs a rhetorical style in Capital is Dead that is clean and direct, belying the erudition upon which it is grounded and in contrast to the aphoristic approach of A Hacker Manifesto. Indeed, Wark notes that Capital Is Dead is 'summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time'. Her forthcoming book, Reverse Cowgirl strikes out in a new direction in the form of an autoethnography of the evolution of her identity as a transgender woman. (Full disclosure: Wark served on my dissertation committee when I completed my PhD from the New School for Social Research.)

When it first came out, a number of reviewers of A Hacker Manifesto (myself included) questioned the dialectic of hacker and vectoralist as potentially obfuscating capitalist relationships that continued to hold sway, if perhaps in a different register. With Capital is Dead, Wark firmly establishes the usefulness of those terms to describe a truly new, more pernicious apparatus of exploitation.

Yet I'm still not sure this new relationship means that capital is dead. The tech industry, self-avowedly capitalist to its core, operates on 'progressive ephemeralization', a concept originally expressed in R. Buckminister Fuller's 1938 book Nine Chains to the Moon, where he notes technology's ability to do 'more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing', a fulfillment of the Communist Manifesto where capitalism's revolutionary power to wash away all things in its relentless search for profit is summed up in the famous phrase: 'all that is solid melts into air'.

Be that as it may, things do seem to be different now and for a great many they are demonstrably worse. Whatever one calls it, Wark's attempt to think outside of orthodoxy, to transform the language by which we understand our current moment, commands our attention.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.