Review: Mark Stevenon McKenzie Wark

Capital Is Not Dead

For the first half of 2020, life adjusted itself to Covid-19, a highly-contagious respiratory disease unheard of this time last year. At least half a month too late, on 23 March, my country of residence was placed under lockdown, shuttering classrooms and parks and pubs and libraries and just about all places of free gathering. For myself and many others in the United Kingdom, the social became virtual. Outside of weekly trips to the grocery store, running in a hilltop woodland, and kicking a football with my four-year-old son, life would take place indoors, with the outside world entering materially by way of the post, and narratively via state news briefings and hyperactive social media feeds.

In late May, beginning in Minneapolis when police murdered a man named George Floyd, the social rapidly and aggressively de-virtualised in the form of urban revolt: riots and looting; abolitionist demonstrations and decolonial iconoclasm; burning police stations and squad cars; the construction of barricades and the establishment of autonomous zones. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of comrades took to the streets and fought the police and their allied fascists. This popular movement, gathered under the slogan Black Lives Matter, acted against racism, but not against racism alone. As the riots made clear, ours is a moment of entrenched racial capitalism: a social relation that secures ruling class power through the manipulation of racial, ethnic, and nationalist prejudice – what Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as ‘a death-dealing displacement of difference into hierarchies that organise relations within and between the planet’s sovereign political territories’. Black Lives Matter, in its insurrectionary manifestations, is a living counterforce to racial capitalism.

And yet the social was never only or even primarily virtual, and especially not during the first half of 2020. That a period of lockdown and riots has been punctuated with all manner of heightened political action, from rent strikes and building occupations to mutual aid and labour organisation, demonstrates the collective need to resist a property system that risks the mass death of expendable humans. Shelf-stackers and delivery drivers, school teachers and security guards, fire and rescue services, utilities and waste disposal, medical staff and carers of all kinds: these ‘key workers’, as they have been rechristened, form a racialised and gendered ‘frontline’ for whom survival necessitates paid work at a time when work means proximity to other humans and their potentially lethal bacteria. Despite state-sanctioned calls for ‘social distancing’, the idea of a virtual society decoupled from living, breathing humans remains a privilege afforded only to those who can, by the providence of capital distribution, retreat from the outside world. For those corralled into shelters and hospitals, into housing projects and prison systems, who live on the street or are simply forced to work for sustenance, that retreat is impossible.

Covid-19 has been a daily reminder of the capitalist horizon, its unreconstructed class hierarchies and its imperative to work and consume. However, by exacerbating tensions between the propertied and the dispossessed, the pandemic appears to have made something like revolution thinkable once again. Revolution is not just desirable but necessary when the incorporation of all people, as whole human beings, is impossible without overhauling the social order – and Black Lives Matter, by insisting on the significance of those otherwise excluded, is an imperfect yet meaningful bid to remake society, shatter the chains of racial capitalism, end a system that is thoroughly incompatible with human flourishing, and find new ways of being together in the world.

For McKenzie Wark, author of Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, we don’t have to wait for the end of capital; it is already upon us. We are living through the morbid symptoms of its decline, and this is nothing to be happy or hopeful about. ‘This is not capitalism anymore; it is something worse,’ we are told in the book’s introduction. According to Wark, the modes of production and social relations we describe as capitalism have been eclipsed by a different form of predation. In addition to exploiting labour to generate surplus value and extracting natural resources to manufacture into sellable commodities, the new ruling class is hoarding ‘surplus information’ in order to build predictive models and logistical matrixes that subordinate human activity to what Wark calls an ‘information political economy’. Privatising and monopolising information, we learn, is a highly effective way to ensure the persistence of inequality, oppression, domination, and exploitation.

To take only the most notorious example of this, Amazon is not just a capitalist firm in the traditional sense, with its army of underpaid and ill-treated workers labouring in dispatch warehouses and call centres and delivery vans instead of factories (which are, of course, still required to make whatever product has been purchased). Amazon is, from Wark’s point of view, a corporate entity that dominates the market because of its capacity to transmit, store, and process information. Its business is built around the exemplary management of global supply chains through predictive algorithms for consumption and the tracking of commodities in real-time, as they venture from the warehouse to your doorstep. ‘Information technology is a sort of meta-technology,’ writes Wark, ‘designed to observe, measure, record, control and predict what things, people, or indeed other information can or will or should do.’ Amazon makes its killing because it has the best meta-tech for online shopping, but it is not alone: Google, Walmart, Apple, and others all command complex logistical systems designed for efficient global distribution.

We will return to the question of whether or not this is a form of capitalism, and whether or not its status as such is important, only after taking up Wark’s account of why the information economy is a qualitatively different kind of threat to anything that has come before.

As an evolutionary leap either within or beyond capital, our moment of valorised surplus information has its precedent in the emergent culture industries and the commodification of leisure during the first half of the twentieth century. ‘The organized labor movement had struggled for free time for working people,’ Wark reminds us. ‘Capital was forced to compromise, but it found a way to commodify leisure time as well as work time.’ This was done via popular and broadcast media: cinema, radio, recorded music, projected films, television, and so on. In the argument famously advanced by Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the culture industry offered some reprieve to otherwise dissatisfied humans, in the form of entertaining products that provided a small amount of pleasure to offset the tedium of life. In this view, most of what we think we enjoy and most of what we think makes us unique is a means of pacification, of making us into good citizens, acclimatising us to a cycle of work and consumption. The experience of the culture industry is that we work in order to afford the thing that is our relief from working.

Now, however, ‘the culture industries are superseded by the vulture industries’ – by Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. ‘We have to entertain each other,’ writes Wark, ‘while they collect the rent, and collect it on all social media time, public or private, work or leisure, and (if you keep your FitBit on) even when you sleep.’ In this communicative and computational leap from broadcast to interactive media, something other than labour and leisure has been taken from us, and this is where we ought to sound the alarm. ‘Not just our labor, not just our leisure – something else is being commodified here: our sociability, our common and ordinary life together, what you might even call our communism.’ With its precision-targeted adverts and swift delivery times enabled by light-speed information systems, the market carves itself deeper and deeper into our sense of being-in-the-world, in such a way that any expression of desire or need ‘becomes a unique vector through a layered space that can fulfil an almost infinite number of desires, so long as they all take the form of a user asking an interface to satisfy a demand with a commodity.’

The difference between the culture industry and the vulture industry might be figured, then, as a narrowing of possibility, the deadening constriction of all spontaneous transformative potential: a further and perhaps final reification of alternative futures, trapping each and every one of us within our geographically and economically sanctioned places, isolated from one another but for the mild dopamine hit that tracks to online interaction. This is the political meaning of all our predictive algorithms: the becoming predictable if not programmable of everything and everyone.

This thesis is not without precedent. For Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, writing in the mid 1990s, information had already become a dominant economic force: a third stage in the passage of history that runs from primary through secondary production, agriculture through modern industry, to something tertiary:

We might call the passage from the second paradigm to the third, from the domination of industry to that of services and information, a process of economic postmodernisation, or better, informatisation.

Hardt and Negri are only two prominent thinkers to have combined an interest in information with a materialist critique of the economy. Wark’s book enters the field alongside the works of several other thinkers who have been sensing out alternative, technologically-supercharged modes of production emerging from within the wreck of capital. We encounter cognate arguments, though made somewhat more optimistically, in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to the Future (2015), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015), and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2018). The key difference between Wark and these thinkers is Wark’s insistence that capital is dead and that it has been replaced by information. Relegating capitalism to its grave is a decisive gesture that stands in productive contrast with Hardt and Negri’s formulation that capitalism’s uneven productive processes now coexist ‘within the networks of the world market and under the domination of the informational production of services.’ For them, information articulates the capitalist world-system; for Wark, information is the material form of that system’s doom.

Let us hazard a loose definition. If capitalism can be described as widespread wage dependency combined with alienable property rights and production for profit in the market, then obviously we are still living through capitalism. ‘Of course,’ Wark confesses, ‘there’s plenty of evidence for this still being capitalism or mostly capitalism. The question would be whether an additional mode of production is emerging and whether it is qualitatively different enough to call it something else.’ That Wark sees the evidence for capital’s survival and acknowledges the way capital agglomerates new technologies and responds to its historical conditions invites the question: why not just call this capital?

Here we get to what seems to be the book’s real purpose, in which the narrative form might be just as significant as its content. Instead of redefining the present by stacking new adjectives before an old noun (as in platform capitalism, necro capitalism, neuro capitalism, financial capitalism, communicative capitalism, surveillance capitalism, cognitive capitalism, late capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, and so on), Wark’s book announces that capitalism hasn’t just modified; it’s dead. And while its apparent successor is even worse, we don’t yet have the vocabulary to communicate just how bad things will get. There’s real force to this rhetorical gesture insofar as it moves us beyond timeworn descriptors that have potentially ossified into cliché.

To insist upon the death of the old and the arrival of the new is to enact a kind of modernist shock tactic. For Wark, this kind of catalytic move is necessary because our ways of describing capitalism as capitalism have become their own kind of ideological mechanism, a substitute for thought and a preventative against action:

That the world we live in is capitalism has become a familiar way of describing something that destroys what is familiar. Capitalism atomises and alienates. It renders everything precarious – except its own hold on the imagination. If the greatest trick of the devil was to persuade us that the devil does not exist, then maybe the greatest trick of capitalism is to gull us into imagining that there is nothing but eternal capitalism.

Against this familiarity, known to anyone that has shared the well-worn truism that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, Wark summons an ‘inner punk rock goddess’, noisily performing a situationist détournement or alienation effect on our known categories in order to see things as though for the first time.

In this way, and to its credit, the book is faithful to the poetic form if not the conceptual apparatus of traditional Marxism. For Marx, writing in 1852, the changing material conditions of history would necessitate a new language for apprehension and action:

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.

To perform something like this with prose, to inspire revolutions by restoring the manifestly alien quality to an entity that feeds on alienation, Marx lifted tropes from gothic horror. From the spectre of communism and the proletarian gravediggers, through market necromancy and infernal motivations, to the portrayal of industrial production as a cannibalistic bloodbath, capitalism, in Marx’s singular insight, was anything but familiar or comforting. It was a nightmare panorama of pain and torment and human carnage on a planetary scale; it was the apocalypse made flesh.

It is from this corpus of gothic imagery that Wark derives the book’s title. ‘Capital,’ wrote Marx, ‘is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.’ Some of Wark’s best writing elaborates on this idea, relocating economic truths within the hellscape of their making:

To be working, as vernacular English has it, is to be on your grind; work, says Marx, is a meat grinder. Wage labor ends up reduced to blood and guts and goo, minced and reduced to aspic, to dead flesh to be slurped down by the capitalist ruling class.

And yet this vision is said to be wanting for a more accurate presentation of today’s dominant economic relationship:

Industrial capitalism was not terribly interested in workers who think and feel. It wanted hands. It wanted muscle. It was a flesh-eating machine. Whatever disgusting and terrifying power lurks in these more recent stories does not so much eat bodies as brains. This combinatory works two ways: either your mind is erased and your body is another mind’s vehicle; or your mind is subordinated to the will of another power. Either way, your mind is not your own. It feels like some vile takeover.

Shifting away from the vocabulary of vampires and werewolves and industrial meat-grinders, Wark’s language for describing information political economy replaces gothic horror with cyberpunk dystopia, here written in the second-person as though to encourage projection of a reader’s avatar into virtual space:

The Echo connects you to Alexa, an artificial intelligence whose objective is to learn your habits, needs, and desires – and service them. Over time it will get better at servicing you with information and products, and it will add what it learns from you to the matrix of what it knows about everybody. Your job, for which you are not getting paid, is to train a machine to know what the “human” is when seen entirely from the perspective of consuming.

Like something out of a William Gibson or J. G. Ballard novel, such descriptions restage the present in its manifest strangeness, swapping out Marx’s gruelling horror for a regime of sentient machines subsuming human intelligence.

New disturbances require new theory, and here Wark proposes an idiosyncratic and novel vocabulary for describing today’s social relations. In the way that the class antagonism between peasants and landlords was succeeded by the antagonism between proletarians and capitalists, today’s dominant antagonism is between hackers and vectoralists. The hacker class produces new information, which for Wark is different from agrarian, industrial, and even a good deal of computational production. ‘The workplace nightmare of the worker is having to make the same thing, over and over, against the pressure of the clock; the workplace nightmare of the hacker is to produce different things, over and over, against the pressure of the clock.’ Opposed to and oppressing the hackers is the vectoralist class, ‘which comes to dominate not just subordinate classes, but other ruling classes as well’. It does this through new kinds of ownership. ‘Owning and controlling the vector, the hack of new information materialized into patents, copyrights, brands, property logistics. It is more abstract, flexible, adaptive’; this vectorialist class monopolises attention. Class relations have traditionally been understood in terms of property, authority, and expertise. Wark adds a fourth category: information asymmetry. The hacker produces new information; the vectorialist owns and controls it.

Each reader will determine just how catalytic these terms and their associated registers might be, though I can’t help but feel they perform a comforting work of their own. For this reader, there is a twofold sense of familiarity, and it is a familiarity that has always drawn me toward Wark’s writing and persona. Though I’m a few decades younger, I grew up less than an hour down the trainline from where Wark spent her youth and have, like her, left Australia to live and work elsewhere. I’ve always had the uncanny sense of an irreducible but indefinable Australianness to her thinking and writing, like the faint scent of bushfires or the cicada-drone of summertime, and this book is no different. But when she writes in a sci-fi register, the sense is doubled. Having lived my formative years in Australia in the 1990s, when Wark was first developing the vocabulary taken up here, I find that the sci-fi language of hackers and vectoralists has become an object of melancholic nostalgia for a time when those affiliated technologies seemed more liberating than deadening. ‘Twenty years ago,’ Wark says of naming the hacker, ‘that was perhaps too romantic a term, on the border of legality, outside the logic of commodification.’ For me, hacking retains a sense of romance, and when taken up by Wark it is a romance inflected by the primitive communism of childhood friendships and the revolutionary optimism of world-conquering youth.

But perhaps this risks giving too much over to the question of form, to how potentially revolutionary thought is narrated, at the cost of engaging with either the thought or the revolution. Here it is worth grappling with what might be gained not just aesthetically and theoretically, but also strategically and socially for those that would agree on the critical need to transition from the way things are, no matter how we choose describe them. If, for Wark, the problem with so much anti-capitalist thinking is its tendency toward theodicy, in which the promise of communism makes sense of and even justifies the shitstorm we now inhabit, this is a concern shared with much of today’s militant left. The measure of the book’s success might therefore be the extent to which it helps us transition out of either capitalism or its worse successor and into a different social relation. How can we force the end of today’s dominant mode of production before it forces the end of us? Alive or undead, we need to kill it and fast.

At the core of revolutionary politics is a belief that this change, maybe to socialism or communism, but maybe to something entirely unknown, would be engineered by the proletariat – a collective subject capable of abolishing the present state of things, insofar as its liberation necessitates total demolition of the standing social order, from which an egalitarian organisation of society might develop. While there was once a firm belief that the proletariat was synonymous with the industrial working class, macroeconomic and geopolitical history since the 1970s has challenged this idea. With the onset of market deregulation and deindustrialisation, that group identity has decomposed into heterogenous factions, none of which can plausibly present itself as representative of a common interest.

More compelling is the idea that our present proletariat will come from a surplus population: the millions whom capital has failed to absorb into stable work, an army that (in Engels’ good phrase) ‘keeps body and soul together by begging, stealing, street-sweeping, collecting manure, pushing hand-carts, driving donkeys, peddling, or performing occasional small jobs’. The industrial working class cannot be today’s revolutionary subject because it has been annihilated by austerity and offshoring and automation, but the surplus population generates its own challenges. While massive and growing, it remains politically incoherent, riven by all manner of insuperable differences, not to mention material distance. It comprises everyone from downwardly mobile professionals, through to the urban poor and immiserated semi-peasants, right down to asylum-seekers and the incarcerated.

The difference between these two competing visions of the revolutionary subject – the industrial working class and the surplus population – is the difference between two kinds of Marxism: one that refers to a relatively coherent political identity, though an identity that is typically white and straight and male, and another that refers to an economic category whose identities are incoherently manifold.

Wark’s major contribution to this riddle is the concept of the hacker class, which might be said to combine these two ways of thinking about revolution. In many of its appearances, the hacker seems less like an economic fact and more like a professional lifestyle or subcultural identity. On this score, similarities might be drawn to employment-based character types in working-class mythology: the miner, the stevedore, and so on. But many members of the hacker class are also part of a surplus population. Arriving historically at the same time as deregulation and deindustrialisation, the hacker class overlaps with the insecure, informal workers of the precariat: those in gig work, on zero-hour contracts, and other kinds of unsustainable employment, or forced downward into a criminalised underclass. Bringing these two sides of the hacker class together, let us redescribe the surplus population’s political incoherence as the absence of binding codes of information and remind ourselves that information is the hacker’s speciality. The hacker might therefore have a key role to play in forging collaborative alliances between subordinated classes, building a revolutionary coalition that is more about economic agents than political identities, as well as making local struggles known to each other and themselves.

While this might sound idealistic, there is potential for more practical uses of the hacker class, in mobilising what some comrades would describe as counter-logistics. In the final and perhaps most satisfying chapter of Wark’s book, she summarises the thinking of four ‘vulgar’ Marxists – Andrei Platanov, Angela Davis, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Asger Jorn – who have rewritten Marxism through the messiness and wonder of lived experience as a way to ‘open some plural pathways through which to think from past to present, to inhabitable futures.’ To apprehend what it might mean for the hacker to become revolutionary, and to do so within the present context of riots and insurrections and insurgency, I would like to add a fifth vulgar Marxist to Wark’s pantheon. Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian communist accused of terrorist acts and murdered by the police, was also a theorist of information. In his guidebook to guerrilla warfare, he stresses the value of information as a matter of concrete necessity for those wanting to demoralise the state military and destroy economic, political and social systems:

Careful reading of the press with particular attention to the mass communication media, the research of accumulated data, the transmission of news and everything of note, a persistence in being informed and in informing others, all this makes up the intricate and immensely complicated question of information which gives the urban guerrilla a decisive advantage.

When to blockade and what to burn: surely these are questions best answered by our hackers?