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5 days ago The Philosophical Salon Where is the Rift? Marx, Lacan, Capitalism, and Ecology - The ...

Where is the rift? Marx, Lacan, capitalism, and ecology

Originally published: The Philosophical Salon (January 20, 2020)

When, decades ago, ecology emerged as a crucial theoretical and practical issue, many Marxists (as well as critics of Marxism) noted that nature–more precisely, the exact ontological status of nature–is the one topic where even the crudest dialectical materialism has an advantage over Western Marxism. Namely, dialectical materialism allows us to think humanity as part of nature, while Western Marxism considers socio-historical dialectics as the ultimate horizon of reference and, ultimately, reduces nature to a background of the historical process, to nature as a historical category, as Lukacs put it. Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism(1) is the latest most consistent attempt to redress the balance and think humanity’s embeddedness in nature without regressing to dialectical-materialist general ontology.

Since the main philosophical reference of Western Marxism is Hegel, no wonder that Saito aggressively rejects the Hegelian inheritance. His starting point is not nature as such, but human labor as the process of metabolism between humanity (as part of nature) and its natural environs, a process which is, of course, part of the universal metabolism (exchange of matter) within nature itself. At its most basic, labor is a material process of exchange which locates humanity in a much wider context of natural processes and, as such, cannot be reduced to any form of Hegelian self-mediation: the externality of nature is irreducible. This apparently abstract point has crucial consequences for how we deal with our ecological predicament. Saito sees the root of the ecological crisis in the rift between the material metabolism of our life-process and the autonomous logic of the reproduction of capital, which poses a threat to this metabolism. In the course of the book, Saito admits there are previous rifts:

despite the appearance of long-term sustainable production in precapitalist societies there was always a certain tension between nature and humans. Capitalism alone does not create the problem of desertification ex nihilo, /…/ it transforms and deepens the transhistorical contradiction by radically reorganizing the universal metabolism of nature from the perspective of capital’s valorization.(250)(2)

But the overall scheme remains one of linear progress in alienation. That’s why Marx was also in his late years more and more interested in an “unconscious socialist tendency” in the persisting remainders of pre-capitalist forms of communal life and speculated that these remainders could directly pass into a post-capitalist society. (For example, in his famous letter to Vera Zasulich, Marx plays with the idea that, maybe, Russian village communes could function as places of resistance against capital and establish socialism without going through capitalism.) Pre-capitalist forms maintain the more of intimate ties of the human with the earth. Along these lines, the title of the first chapter of Saito’s book–“Alienation of Nature as the Emergence of the Modern”(25)–clearly locates the “rift” in capitalist modernity: “After the historical dissolution of the original unity between humans and the earth, the production can only relate to the conditions of production as an alien property.”(26) And Marx’s Communist project is expected to heal that rift:

Only if one comprehends the estrangement in capitalist society as a dissolution of humans’ original unity with the earth does it become evident that Marx’s communist project consistently aims at a conscious rehabilitation of the unity between humans and nature.(42)

The ultimate ground of this rift is that, in capitalism, the labor process does not serve our needs; its goal is to expanded the reproduction of capital itself, irrespective of the damage it does to our environment. Products count only insofar as they are valorized, and consequences for the environment literally do not count. The actual metabolism of our life process is thus subordinated to the artificial “life” of the reproduction of capital. There is a rift between the two, and the ultimate goal of the Communist revolution is not so much to abolish exploitation, as to abolish this rift.

In capitalism, the rift under discussion here gets more radical not just in the sense that the metabolic process between humans and nature is subordinated to the valorization of capital itself. What made the rift explode was the intimate link between capitalism and modern science: capitalist technology, which triggered radical changes in rational environs, cannot be imagined without science, which is why some ecologists have already proposed to change the term for the new epoch we are entering from Anthropocene to Capitalocene. Apparatuses based on science enable humans not only to get to know the real, which is outside the scope of their experiential reality (like quantum waves); they also enable us to construct new “unnatural” (inhuman) objects which cannot but appear to our experience as freaks of nature (gadgets, genetically modified organisms, cyborgs, etc.). The power of human culture is not only to build an autonomous symbolic universe beyond what we experience as nature, but to produce new “unnatural” natural objects which materialize human knowledge. We not only “symbolize nature”; we, as it were, denaturalize it from within.

Should we not apply Marx’s description of how in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” also to nature itself? Today, with the latest biogenetic developments, we are entering a new phase, in which it is simply nature itself that melts into air: the main consequence of scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of its construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus “desubstantialized,” deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called “earth.” This compels us to give a new twist to Freud’s title Unbehagen in der Kultur–discontent, uneasiness, in culture. With the latest developments, discontent shifts from culture to nature itself: nature is no longer “natural,” the reliable “dense” background of our lives; it now appears as a fragile mechanism which, at any point, can explode in a catastrophic direction.

The latest example of such “unnatural nature” was provided by the infamous DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency):

Researchers in the U.S. have created the first living machines by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam. ‘These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth,’ said Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. ‘They are living, programmable organisms.’ Their unique features mean that future versions of the robots might be deployed to clean up microplastic pollution in the oceans, locate and digest toxic materials, deliver drugs in the body or remove plaque from artery walls, the scientists say. ‘It’s impossible to know what the applications will be for any new technology, so we can really only guess,’ said Joshua Bongard, a senior researcher on the team at the University of Vermont. Sam Kriegman, a PhD student on the team at the University of Vermont, acknowledged that the work raised ethical issues, particularly given that future variants could have nervous systems and be selected for cognitive capability, making them more active participants in the world. But the work aims to achieve more than just the creation of squidgy robots. ‘The aim is to understand the software of life,’ Levin said. ‘If you think about birth defects, cancer, age-related diseases, all of these things could be solved if we knew how to make biological structures, to have ultimate control over growth and form.’(3)

It’s the old story of an invention propagated for its benevolent uses (“to clean up microplastic pollution in the oceans,” etc.), with the fact that it is part of a defence (military) project left unsaid. But the crucial point is that an “entirely new lifeform” was created through this combination of a natural organism with a robot, something that exists nowhere in nature. The very expression “the software of life” tells it all: life itself loses its impenetrable density once it is considered to be something regulated by a “software” (a term from computer programming). In the combination of a natural organism with an artificial one, the artificial organism predominates, determining the medium of their encounter. It would be easy to engage here in the praise of cyborgs as the new post-human mode of existence that blurs the old “metaphysical” limits between animal life, human life, and artificial life–it’s more difficult to simply think out the consequences and basic coordinates of what is going on. What, exactly, is disappearing and what is emerging?

Biogenetics, with its reduction of the human psyche itself to an object of technological manipulation, is effectively a kind of empirical instantiation of what Heidegger perceived as the “danger” inherent to modern technology. Crucial here is the interdependence of the human and nature: by reducing the human to just another natural object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama was right: humanity itself relies on some notion of “human nature,” as what we inherited as simply given to us, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is, thus, that there are human beings only insofar as there is impenetrable inhuman nature (Heidegger’s “earth”). But, with the prospect of biogenetic interventions opened up by access to the genome, the species freely changes/redefines itself, its own coordinates. This prospect effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from its enslavement to the “selfish gene.”

The mutual implication, complicity even, of science and capitalism is, of course, not seamless, seeing that it implies an immanent tension in each of the two terms. Science offers itself to capitalism insofar as it is in itself blind toward a key dimension of its existence signalled by Lacan in a couple of co-dependent formulations. Science forecloses the dimension of the subject; science operates at the level of knowledge and ignores truth; science has no memory. Let’s begin with this last feature:

the fact is that science, if one looks at it closely, has no memory. Once constituted, it forgers the circuitous path by which it came into being; otherwise stated, it forgets a dimension of truth that psychoanalysis seriously puts to work. I must, however, be more precise. It is widely known that theoretical physics and mathematics–after every crisis that is resolved in a form for which the term “generalized theory” can in no way be taken to mean “a shift to generality”–often maintain what they generalize in its position in the preceding structure. That is not my point here. My concern is the toll [drame], the subjective toll that each of these crises takes on the learned. The tragedy [drame] has its victims, and nothing allows us to say that their destiny can be inscribed in the Oedipal myth. Let us say that the subject has not been studied to any great extent. J. R. Mayer, Cantor–well I am not going to furnish a list of first-rate tragedies, leading at times to the point of madness; the names of certain of our contemporaries, in whose cases I consider exemplary the tragedy of what is happening in psychoanalysis, would soon have to be added to the list.(4)

What Lacan aims at here goes far beyond the psychic tragedies of great scientific inventors. (He mentions Cantor whose revolutionizing of the notion of infinity triggered inner turmoil which pushed him to the limit of madness and even led him to practice coprophagia.) From the scientific standpoint, such tragedies are irrelevant private life details which in no way affect the status of a scientific discovery. Such details HAVE to be ignored if we want to comprehend a scientific theory, and this ignorance is not a weakness of the scientific theory but its strength. A scientific theory is “objective”: it suspends its position of enunciation. It doesn’t matter who enounces it; all that matters is its content. In this sense, the discourse of science forecloses its subject. Lacan, however, tries to think the subject of modern science, bringing out such “psychological” details not in order to relativize the validity of scientific theories but to answer the question: what shifts have to happen in the subjectivity of a scientist so that such a theory can be formulated? A theory may be “objectively valid,” but its enunciation can nonetheless rely on traumatic subjective shifts: there is no pre-established harmony between subject and object.

What Lacan aims at also goes beyond the so-called “ethical responsibility” of scientists for the (mis)use of their scientific achievements. He mentions a couple of times J.R.Oppenheimer, the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory often credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb.” When the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated in July 16 1945, he remarked that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I became Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Beset by ethical qualms, he expressed his doubts publicly and, as a consequence, he suffered the revocation of his security clearance and was effectively stripped of direct political influence… Commendable as it is, such a critical stance is not enough: it remains at the level of “ethical committees” which proliferate today and try to constrain scientific progress into the straightjacket of predominant norms” (how far should we go in biogenetic manipulations, etc.). The reason as to why this is not enough is that it amounts to no more than secondary control over a machine which, if allowed to run its immanent course, would have engendered catastrophic results.

The trap to be avoided here is double. On the one hand, it is insufficient to locate danger in particular misuses of science due to corruption (like the scientists who support climate change denial) or something similar. The danger resides at a much more general level, concerning the very mode of functioning of science. On the other hand, we should also reject the over-hasty generalization of danger to what Adorno and Horkheimer called “instrumental reason”–the idea that modern science is in its very basic structure directed to dominate, manipulate and exploit nature, plus the concomitant idea that modern science is ultimately just a radicalization of a basic anthropological tendency. (For Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, there is a straight line from the primitive use of magic to the influence modern technology wields over natural processes). The danger resides in the specific conjunction of science and capital.

To get the basic dimension of what Lacan is aiming at in the passage quoted above, we have to introduce the difference between knowledge and truth, wherein ”truth” acquires all its weight. To indicate this weight, let’s mention yet again Lacan’s paradox of jealousy. Lacan wrote that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological. The pathological elements is the husband’s need for jealousy as the only way to retain his dignity, identity even. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls…)–which they do not, of course -, their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) a pathological phenomenon because it repressed the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. In the Nazi vision, their society is an organic whole of harmonious collaboration, so an external intruder is needed to account for divisions and antagonisms.

The same holds for how, today, anti-immigrant populists deal with the “problem” of the refugees: they approach it in the atmosphere of fear, of the incoming struggle against the islamicization of Europe, and they get caught in a series of obvious absurdities. For them, the refugees who flee terror are equal to the terrorist they are escaping from, oblivious to the obvious fact that, while there are among the refugees also terrorists, rapists, criminals, etc., the large majority are desperate people looking for a better life. The cause of problems that are immanent to today’s global capitalism is projected onto an external intruder. We find here “fake news” which cannot be reduced to a simple inexactitude: if they (partially, at least) correctly render (some of) the facts, they are all the more dangerously a “fake.” Anti-immigrant racism and sexism are not dangerous because they lie; they are at their most dangerous when the lie is presented in the form of a (partial) factual truth.

It is this dimension of truth that eludes science: in the same way that my jealousy is “untrue” even if its suspicions are confirmed by objective knowledge, in the same way that our fear of refugees is false with regard to the subjective position of enunciation it implies even if some facts can confirm it, modern science is “untrue” insofar as it is blind to the way it is integrated into the circulation of capital, to its link to technology and its capitalist use, i.e., to what in old Marxist terms was called the “social mediation” of its activity. It is important to bear in mind that this “social mediation” is not an empirical fact external to the scientific procedure; it is, rather, a kind of transcendental a priori which structures the scientific procedure from within. So, it is not only that scientists “don’t care” about the eventual misuse of their work (if this were the case, more “socially conscious” scientists would be enough). Instead, this “not-caring” is inscribed into its structure, coloring the very “desire” that motivates scientific activity which is what Lacan aims at with his claim that science doesn’t have memory. How so?

In the conditions of developed capitalism, a strict division prevails between those who do the labor (the workers) and those who plan and coordinate it. The latter are on the side of capital: their job is to maximize capital’s valorization, and when science is used to enhance productivity, it is also constrained to the task of facilitating the process of capital’s valorization. Science is, thus, firmly entrenched on the side of the capital: it is the ultimate figure of knowledge, which is taken away from laborers and appropriated by capital and its executors. Scientists who work are also paid, but their work is not at the same level as laborers’ work: they, as it were, work for the other (opposite) side and are, in some sense, the strike-breakers of the production process… This, of course, doesn’t mean that modern natural science is inexorably on the side of the capital: today, science is needed more than ever in any resistance against capitalism. The point is just that science itself is not enough to do this job, since it “has no memory,” since it ignores the dimension of truth.

We should draw a distinction between two levels of what makes science problematic. First, there is, at a general level, the fact that science “has no memory,” which is a part of the strength, constitutive of science. Second, there is the specific conjunction of science and capitalism, where “having no memory” relates to the particular blindness to its own social mediation. However, Greta Thunberg is right when she claims that politicians should listen to science. Wagner’s “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) thus acquires a new actuality.

Today’s threats are not primarily external (natural) but self-generated by human activity permeated by science (the ecological consequences of our industry, the psychic consequences of uncontrolled biogenetics, etc.). As a result, the sciences are simultaneously (one of) the source(s) of risks and the sole medium we have to grasp and define the threats. Even if we blame scientific-technological civilization for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but often even to perceive the threat. What we need is not science that re-discovers its grounding in pre-modern wisdom, given that traditional wisdom is, precisely, something that prevents us from perceiving the real threat of ecological catastrophes. After all, wisdom “intuitively” tells us to trust mother-nature which is the stable ground of our being, but it is this stable ground, which is undermined by modern science and technology. So, we need a science that is decoupled from both poles: from the autonomous circuit of capital as well as from traditional wisdom, a science that could finally stand on its own. What this means is that there is no return to an authentic feeling of our unity with nature: the only way to confront ecological challenges is to accept fully the radical denaturalization of nature.


Notes:

  1. Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, New York: Monthly Review Press 2017. Numbers in brackets refer to the pages of this book.
  2. An exemplary case of a rift in premodern societies is provided by Island: it was fully forested when Norwegians arrived there in 8th century, and soon afterwards it was totally deforested.
  3. Quoted from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/13/scientists-use-stem-cells-from-frogs-to-build-first-living-robots.
  4. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, New York: Norton 2997, p. 738.
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