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Where is capitalism?

Present, all too present, on the earth, capitalism is not present to it. It is global. It has the planet in its grip, but holds at a distance, as an appendage, the only matter that matters to it. It possesses it, that is, as an empire, a colony, a corporation or a mine, as an absentee owner. It must. its holding cannot hold it. It is organized capital: capital’s “limitless and measureless drive” (Marx), organized. “Endless capital accumulation” is its “defining principle” (Samir Amin). It needs a world limitless enough to accommodate its limitlessness. The earth is no such place. Had it ever conceived itself as what it is, a thing entirely dependent on its real-existing world, it would have self-destructed in ovo. It conceives itself, rather, in an ongoing act of finance-ontological immaculate conception, as untainted by—fiscally redeemed from—the profit-limiting defects of its all-too-finite physical world. The dictate at the bottom line of its “growth imperative” is a declaration of independence from its real-existing earthly environ. The world it “creates after its own image” is “offshore,” a citadel for “the world’s major capital stocks, flows, and property claims” (Hendrikse). Capitalism’s imperium, its authority to rule, is based on the defensive abyss—the “ecological rift.” It postulates and enforces between its self-imaging “offshore world” and its real-existing earthly habitat.1

Where is capitalism? Its vantage point, the fundamentum inconcussum on which it stands, is a finance-ontological Archimedean point. It is, yes, a pure accounting abstraction: a place where nothing lives. But it grants, to those who invest themselves in it, leverage that is financializing the planet: moving it, in effect, into the life-free orbit of capital. The returns, for savvy speculators, are extraordinary. Taking wing on the updraft of rising markets, they fly up—as in capital flight, a pecuniary burlesque of Platonic souls—to capitalism’s sunlike, accounting-correct vantage point, from which the terracidal consequences of their ascendence disappear.2

Where is capitalism? Its standpoint, the one all who rise in its hierarchies internalize, is metaphysical in the literal sense of meta ta physica: “beyond the physical.” Capitalism’s meta ta physica is absent from its all-too finite physical world. It alone explains its perversely twisted perception, documented in balance sheets and manifest in its biocidal global practice, that the destruction of the physical foundations of life on earth is a no-count “externality.”

The problem for capitalism, like that of Oedipus, is the reality of its nascence. Its rule, like that of the mythical king, is sustained by denial: tactical ignorance of the truth of its nativity; the truth, namely that it, like all else that comes into existence through earthly life, is native to this physically limited place. It is stuck here. There is, despite the chatter of rocketeering billionaires, no other place for it to be. The ecological bounds that hold the biosphere hold it. It owes its existence to them. No life, no capitalism. That fact, its absolute, congenital dependence on the ecological bounds that uphold earthly life, is the thing it must deny.

Like the imperial officer posted to a distant colony, the idea of “going native” is abhorrent to it. Were it here, present to its real-existing world, it would not be able to account, even in its own accounting, for its globalization of the resource curse. Just as slumlords distance themselves from the decaying properties they exploit, so global capitalism, the archetypal absentee owner, distances itself from the “planet of slums” it plunders.3 The sci-fi film Elysium offers a fitting metaphor. The ultra-wealthy reside in a luxurious satellite from which they extort, with the help of killer robots, the last scraps of value from the ruined earth below. The gated communities, bugout retreats, and survivalist comfort bunkers of the super wealthy are fetishes: fantastic, commodified parodies of Elysium.

Capitalism is metaphysical. The idea is not new. The capital-appropriate “economic point of view,” Milton Friedman argued in 1995, is defined by what it is not. What it is not is physical. “You have to separate,” Friedman explained, “the economic from the physical point of view.” The two are separate, but not equal. The physical viewpoint has namely an irredeemable deficiency: the ability to see the real limits of physical things. The economic viewpoint is superior to the physical because it has the inverse superpower: the inability to see such profit-limiting realities. The physical point of view sees, for example, that physical earthly resources have physical limits. The economic viewpoint, above and beyond the physical, sees such things as “illusions.” A physical resource like oil, so Friedman says, is “not limited from an economic point of view.” The whole Club of Rome idea that there are “limits to growth” is invalid—“stupid,” the Nobel Prize-winner exclaims—because it is based on the deficient, physical-reality perceiving, physical viewpoint.4

Friedman is right. The capital-correct “economic point of view” is beyond the physical. It sees what capital needs—limitlessness—rather than what its real-existing world is—limited. Limits, any ties that really bind, are existential threats to capitalism. Its institutionalized optic does not, cannot, must not see them. It registers the exploitability of physical resources such as oil but disappears the bounds that define their physical reality. Its gaze reduces real physical bounds, even the planetary boundaries that hold the biosphere, to—as Marx put it—mere barriers for capital to “overpower and overrun” (überwältigen und…hinauszugehn. Grundrisse, MEW, 42, 266).5

Friedman’s point is not important because he made it or because Marx concurs. His point is important because it accurately describes how capitalism behaves. Fossil fuel executives have worked long and hard to illustrate Friedman’s assertion that the “economic point of view” does not see real-existing physical limits as real. They are beyond such mere physical realities. The knowledge that their business model would undermine the biosphere, established by their own scientists in the 1970s, never counted for them as a limit. The ecological boundaries that hold the biosphere are, as far as they can see, unwarranted barriers to overpower and overrun. Prioritizing profit over life does not make them profligates. Their motives, from a capitalist viewpoint, are pure; their profits, sublime. The primary climate-killing industry is favored, accordingly, by the capitalist elite: big finance, big tech, big chemistry, big agriculture, and the world’s most powerful governments. Unhinged, conceptually, from even the most patent facts of physical earthly reality, capitalism’s metaphysical worldview is free to view its resource-rich world as what capital needs: an infinitely exploitable resource. It has elevated, by doing so, the “resource curse” from a national to a global malediction. Conceptual absence from the earth—nativity denial—is the condition of the possibility for that transformation.6

“Beyond the physical,” for capitalism is not “non-physical.” Its metaphysical worldview is, in this respect no different from any other. Meta ta physica cannot exist, in principle, without ta physica. Were it not for the physical, a metaphysical viewpoint would have no point, no view, no “other” to see through, no place for its “beyond” to be. Capitalism’s construct, though not novel in form, is capital-specific in mission: to “discover,” Columbus-like, a new and improved world, one created “after its own image,” in which all profit-limiting realities—human cultural, ecological, and brute physical—disappear. The earth, in capitalist metaphysics, is a world material enough to be physically exploitable, yet immaterial enough—devoid of the physical boundaries that define all real-existing physical things—to be limitlessly exploitable.

King Canute, seated on his throne at the ocean’s edge, commanded the incoming tide to stop. It did not. Capitalism, enthroned in a higher, Neo-Archimedean cathedra, commands the earth to multiply. It has, it appears, complied. One earthism—acceptance of the fact that there is just one—has shriveled under its rule, at any rate, to a fringe ideology advanced by demonstrators and the occasional UN official. The whole growth-threatening idea that there is just one physically limited planet earth exemplifies, for capitalism, the deficiency of a “physical point of view.” Capitalism transcends it. Sustaining the global capitalist economy at its current growth rate would require 1.7 earths. Sustaining it at that of the Netherlands, 3.6; at that of the U.S., 5.1; at that of Qatar, 9. The number of earths, liberated in capitalism’s beyond-the-physical accounting from all profit-restricting ties to mere physical reality, is free to increase as limitlessly as capital’s expansionary dynamic demands. The point has nothing to do with personal beliefs. Whether anyone—CEOs, politicians, pundits, even economists—actually credits the fantastic premise that there are unlimited earths is irrelevant. The point is that in all key policy decisions capitalist power players proceed, systematically and consistently, on the basis of that premise. The idea that there is just one earth is as irrelevant, in capitalist practice, as the idea that it is flat.7
Capitalist libertarianism is finance-ontological. Profit-inhibiting government regulations are unwarranted bureaucratic overreach because any realities that might justify them—social, ecological, or physical; even the fact that there is just one earth—are unwarranted reality overreach. Capitalism is above such realities; they are below it. What counts in its bottom-line bookkeeping counts as real; what does not, is not. “Quod non est in libro,” Oswald Spengler quipped a century ago, “non est in mundo.”8

There is, under capitalism, no free market for truth. Imports are interdicted; it fabricates its own. The capitalist market, Foucault states, is the “site of truth;” the “site of veridiction.” Its speech, the idiom in which it dictates its veridictions, is money talking: money, namely, in its function as pure, fluid capital. Money, in that function, is the tongue of capital, the higher power institutionalized in capitalism. The freedom of its speech from limits imposed by lower entities, governments, life-sustaining ecological bounds, or brute geophysical limits, is not simply protected. It is enshrined. Money, enshrined in capitalism, is—according to Marx (borrowing from Shakespeare)—the “omnipotent being” and “visible godhead” capable of creating a “world after its own image.” Its pronouncements, like those of the first-person voice in Genesis, auto-realize. The earth, it announces, is the ta physica adequate to its meta: a limitless exploitable vein of raw material. It mines that vein.9

Capitalism mines. Mining is the modus operandi, the mode of operations, that correlates to limitless capital accumulation, its modus ontis—mode of being. Marx called its M.O. expropriation: “appropriation without exchange.” It is, he wrote, a Raubsystem, a “system of robbery.” Mining embodies that system. Capitalism, Werner Sombart wrote a century ago, mined itself into existence by extracting silver and gold from the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Sombart discusses at length—in a chapter entitled “Robbery” (Der Raub)—the parallels between A) mining as the extraction of minerals and metals from the earth; B) mining as the extraction of labor power from enslaved human beings; and C) mining as the extraction of cash crops from the soil in industrial agriculture. Mining had, in all its varied modes, a “soul building” (seelenbildenden) influence on capitalism. It “determined its entire nature.” Lewis Mumford made the same point: by the sixteenth century, the mining industry “set the pattern for capitalist exploitation.” Simultaneously, theologians deployed Thomist-Aristotelian thought to rationalize the ferocious exploitation of native labor to mine the Andean silver that bankrolled the Spanish empire, which, as Orlando Betancor articulates, laid the metaphysical foundation for “capitalist modernity” and its “reduction of nature to technologically disposable material.”10

Mining today is “killing the planet all by itself” (Derrick). The agricultural industry mines the soil; the water industry mines water; the for-profit education industry mines youth; the pharmaceutical industry mines mortality; global capitalism mines the globe. The entire earth, under its grip, “has become a mine” (Jackson). There is a problem with grasping the planet as a mine. The earth is where life lives. A mine is where no one lives. No one—not the living populations, humans, flora, and fauna displaced during construction; not the miners in the shafts; not the executives directing operations from afar—lives in a mine. To grasp the earth as a mine is to grasp it as a place where no one lives. A mine, exhausted, is abandoned. The earth, grasped as a mine, is already abandoned. Capitalism, unhinged from the earth, has already abandoned it. It must. It needs limitlessness. There is in the reality of its own, real-existing habitat, no place for it to be. Abandonment—institutionalized meta ta physica, absence from its physically limited, earthly home—is the condition of its possibility.11


  1. 1) Marx, “der schranken- und maßlose Trieb, über seine Schranke hinauszugehn,” is from Grundrisse, MEW, 42, 266. 2) Growth imperative: Gordon, Myron J., and Jeffrey S. Rosenthal. “Capitalism’s Growth Imperative.” Cambridge Journal of Economics, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 25-48, www.jstor.org/stable/23600344. 3) Samir Amin “Seize the Crisis!” Monthly Review, vol. 61, 1 Dec. 2009, monthlyreview.org/2009/12/01/seize-the-crisis/. 4) “creates after its own image” is a phrase from Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist Manifesto. 5) The offshore world quote: Hendrikse, Reijer, and Rodrigo Fernandez. “Offshore Finance: How Capital Rules the World.” Transnational Institute, 13 Feb. 2019, longreads.tni.org/stateofpower/offshore-finance. 5) For “ecological rift” see Foster, John Bellamy, and Brett Clark. The ecological rift: capitalism’s war on the earth. Monthly Review Press, 2010.
  2. Financializing the planet: see Foster, John Bellamy. “The Defense of Nature: Resisting the Financializaton of the Earth.” Monthly Review, vol. 73, no. 11, 1 Apr. 2022, monthlyreview.org/2022/04/01/the-defense-of-nature-resisting-the-financializaton-of-the-earth/.
  3. Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. Verso, 2007. Thorstein Veblen introduced the idea of absentee ownership in his 1923 book with that title.
  4. Friedman stated his case in Ravaioli, Carla. Economists and the Environment: What the top economists say about the environment. Zed Press, 1995, 32-33.
  5. überwältigen und…hinauszugehn. Marx, Grundrisse, MEW, 42, 266.
  6. Fossil fuel corporations knew: 1) “Oil firms knew decades ago fossil fuels posed grave health risks, files reveal.” The Guardian, 18 Mar. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/18/oil-industry-fossil-fuels-air-pollution-documents. 2) Pattee, Emma. “The scientists hired by big oil who predicted the climate crisis long ago. “The Guardian, 2 July 2021, www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/02/scientists-climate-crisis-big-oil-climate-crimes. 3) Banerjee, Neela, et al. “Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago.” Inside Climate News, 21 Sept. 2015, insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming. Capitalist elite: 1) Finance: Banking on Climate Chaos 2022. Oil Change International, 2022, www.bankingonclimatechaos.org//wp-content/themes/bocc-2021/inc/bcc-data-2022/BOCC_2022_vSPREAD.pdf. 2) Fossil Fuels: Donaghy, Tim, et al. Oil in the Cloud How Tech Companies are Helping Big Oil Profit from Climate Destruction. Greenpeace, 2020. 3) Chemical: Conley, Julia. “Rising Chemical Pollution Crosses Crucial ‘Planetary Boundary’.” Common Dreams, 18 Jan. 2022, www.commondreams.org/news/2022/01/18/rising-chemical-pollution-crosses-crucial-planetary-boundary. Sadasivam, Naveena. 4) Governments: “Fossil Fuel Subsidies Top $450 Billion Annually, Study Says.” Inside Climate Change, 12 Nov. 2015, insideclimatenews.org/news/12112015/fossil-fuel-subsidies-top-450-billion-annually-study-says/. Resource curse: Foster, John Bellamy and Brett Clark. “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism.” Socialist Register, vol. 40, 19 Mar. 2009, socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5817.
  7. “How many Earths? How many countries?” Earth Overshoot Day, www.overshootday.org/how-many-earths-or-countries-do-we-need/.
  8. Spengler, Oswald. Der Untergang des Abendlandes. 31st ed., vol. 2, C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchlandlung, 1922, 616.
  9. Foucault, Michelle. The Birth of Biopolitics. Translated by Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 31. Marx: “allmächtiges Wesen … sichtbare Gottheit,” in: Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte: Geld. Marxist Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/marx-engels/1844/oek-phil/3-4_geld.htm#top.
  10. 1) “Capitalism mines” is a central theme of Kirsch, Stuart. Mining Capitalism. University of California Press, 2014. 2) Marx on expropriation see Foster, John Bellamy and Brett Clark. “Capitalism and Robbery: The Expropriation of Land, Labor, and Corporeal Life.” Monthly Review, vol. 71, no. 7, Dec. 2019, monthlyreview.org/2019/12/01/capitalism-and-robbery/?mc_cid=3ea828f621&mc_eid=c82a1f20a9. 3) Sombart, Werner. Der Moderne Kapitalismus. Vol. 1, 2nd Part, Duncker & Humblot, 1922. Chapter on robbery: “Der Raub” 668-679. “Seelenbildend,” 541. On precious metal production, 513 ff. 4) Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Harcourt Brace, 1963, 74. 5) Betancor, Orlando. The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. 1-3, 101.
  11. Killing the planet:” Jensen, Derrick and Aric McBay. What we leave behind. Seven Stories Press, 2009. See also 1) Jenson, Robert. “Mining the world to death.” Resilience, 16 July 2013, www.resilience.org/stories/2013-07-16/mining-the-world-to-death/, and 2) Freslon, William Sacher and Paul Cooney. “Transnational Mining and Accumulation by Dispossession.” Research in Political Economy, vol. 33, 13 Dec. 2018, pp. 11-34, https://doi.org/10.1108/S0161-723020180000033002. Industries that mine: 1) Big agriculture: Magdoff, Fred and Brian Tokar, editors. Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal. Monthly Review Press, 2010. 2) Water: Franko, Jennifer, et al. The Global Water Grab: A Primer. Transnational Institute, 2014, www.tni.org/en/publication/the-global-water-grab-a-primer. 3) Youth: Burris, Carol, and Darcie Cimarusti. “Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain.” Network for Public Education, 2021, networkforpubliceducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Chartered-for-Profit.pdf and Foster, John Bellamy. “Education and the Structural Crisis of Capital: The U.S. Case.” Monthly Review, vol. 63, no. 3, 1 July 2011, monthlyreview.org/2011/07/01/education-and-the-structural-crisis-of-capital/. 4) Big Pharma: Applbaum, Kalman. “Marketing global health care: the practices of big pharma.” Vol. 46, 2010, socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/6765 and Conner, Clifford D. “Fraudulent Pharma.” The Tragedy of American Science, Haymarket Books, 2020, pp. 46-71. Earth has become a mine: Jackson, Wes. Becoming Native to This Place. University Press of Kentucky, 1994, 86.