Books

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

Other

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up the narrative begun in A Hacker Manifesto in which conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has been superseded by the domination of the hacker (creators of new concepts and connections) by the vectoralist (so named for their control of the networks through which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.

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