Nature of Disruption, Disruption of Nature: During and After the Pandemic
23 May 2022
Two pairs of legs, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 1929, Image Credit: Wikiart
Esther Leslie argues that catastrophe and crisis have been an integral part of human history during capitalism. Although we live in vicious times, times have long been vicious. It is true that the Corona pandemic has gripped everyone today and brought us to a dark age, but – Leslie asks herself – is the situation truly worse than in the period of the first primitive accumulation as peasants were thrown off the lands and dispossessed, not just of place but also of their own energies? The way she sees it, the old ways reassert themselves, in the pressure for a return to the normal, to the status quo. She also reminds us that in Walter Benjamin’s outstanding analysis, it is precisely this desired ‘status quo’ that is the true catastrophe. Leslie’s central argument is that despite all its exceptionality the pandemic only acuminated existing problems. Its odd merit is that henceforth these problems appear in a clearer light. Granted that we overcome the romantic idea that nature is something which would save us from our own self-inflicted (self-)destruction, from now on we might begin to think how to “save ourselves along with everything and everyone else.”
Disruption of the Social, Return to Nature
Many of us became intimate with disruption in the pandemic months as they rolled into years – could we ever have imagined how disrupted our lives would be, suddenly, as if from nowhere? And that is to say more disrupted than occurs daily within the usual going on of capitalism, which, at least in the settled West, seems to be a relentless force that keeps going, keeps accumulating and producing and trading whatever. And Capitalism did keep going, in redirected ways, as it was made into something barely recognisable to itself. And yet things – Capitalism – were disrupted and, for a while, seemed to stop and economies appeared to contract. It felt that way. There was disruption and this disruption led to the interruption of business as usual. It was an unignorable event for us, as humans with lives, networks, schools, universities and shops, all of which halted their old ways of doing and being and struggled to invent new ones. The new ways involved queues, or working from home and technological mediations and masks and hand sanitisers and the development of a ring of space around ourselves. We settled into the disrupted patterns. It was a new environment in which many things went into suspension, and there was much loss, and for some moments, it seemed as if nothing could go on – once this was all over – as it had done before. There was talk of not returning to the old ways, of taking the best from this. Some imagined the rewilding of the cities, the diminishing of air pollution with reduced air and car travel. But recent experience has seen swift returns to the old ways – or even catch up on lost opportunities. The old ways reassert themselves, in the pressure for a return to the normal, to the status quo, of which Walter Benjamin observed, that things go on according to the ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. The catastrophe that was implicated in the pandemic – environmental crisis, including vulnerability to disease from poor air quality, habitat loss and deforestation leading to the migration of animals and large-scale industrial farming both allowing the transfer of pathogens. There may be disruptions ahead, that is to say, aspects of life as lived to date, may change – but transformation will not have come as the result of a global health emergency, and it will not be discordant with the continued, unremitting, uninterrupted normality of racism and inequality. Its disruption will meld with – and find profit on – the everyday disruption of lives of the many.
Etymologies explain that disruption is a bursting apart, a medical term that originally meant a laceration of tissue, a tearing apart, or a forcible separation into parts. It is close, linguistically, to the notion of corruption, which means to spoil, to turn bad, and, in metaphorical terms, to be bribe-able. A break, a pain, a spoilage comes to name a debasement of character. Language too can be corrupted. Our has been over the past while. Think of the language – the slogans – of the pandemic. A picture flashed up, in the course of it, proliferating through social media channels. A woman, in a dress with a stars and stripes pattern was shown protesting at Huntington Beach, California. She held up a banner: Social distancing = Communism. State-enforced regulations in the USA, result of the COVID-19 pandemic, insisted for a while on keeping a perimeter of six foot around each person to prevent the spread of a virus. These rules were interpreted by her, and many others like her, as the unwarranted intervention of authority into the sovereign life of the individual. Not to touch each other is to be communist. To touch is to defy the state which is always dictating to us and so is socialist, welfarist, communist. Health authorities and governments unite in telling us not to touch each other. Their concern for welfare is suspicious. It is a limit on freedom. It is about control. Such is the thinking. To stay apart is to forward collectivism, which is a limitation on the self. That is the message of the placard. But is not the opposite truer: social distancing suggests neoliberalism in spatial form. It asks us to remain alienated from the social whole, to keep apart from others, because to band together, to collectivise and become social is, perhaps, to develop class consciousness and reasoning. There is no such thing as society, said Margaret Thatcher, in an interview for a mass market magazine, Women's Own, in 1987. That line echoes again and again in British political discourse. There is no society. There are only families. We may look to our neighbour, also, as an afterthought. But there is no society, no wider world of social bonds or lack of bonds that is the character of our social form. Thatcher advocated that we, the public, the collective, born and grown up in the United Kingdom within the National Health Service, should retreat, at least ideologically, to our strong individual selves, bolstered by our families and the compulsion of tradition. We were to remain cossetted in our homes, that we have bought, preferably off Labour Councils, turning public assets into private property and, in the process, turning ourselves into property owners. Around the private home we find a border, one of private property, a fence around a house. Such a line marking out possession and insider/outsider might be scaled up to be the border that keeps out Johnny Foreigner, a wall along the Mexican border, like the one Trump promised but failed to build, and whose very imagining helped him into power. Such a border exists as a limitation on the free movements of people, or some people – and if it cannot be made, it can still be conjured up as an amulet.
Our media claim for themselves the name of the social now. Social media is the site of our connections, apparently, though disconnection – blocking, battery cut out, distracted attention – is always just a moment away. Social media exists without borders, until those are suddenly thrown up – but that appears to go against the nature of the form. The trinity of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook bridge distance virtually. Thatcherite and Trumpish definitions of the social as illegitimate realm find resonance in social media – which mediate the notion of the social, the realm of relations, through the private. In contrast, in the early months of the pandemic, there were multiple efforts at a defence of the social as a realm of collectivity. That attempt to resocialise social media – though organising Mutual Aid groups on WhatsApp, for example, also manifested in social media expressions. For example, the banner on some people’s social media profiles attempted to differentiate between the physical as a space marker and the social as a political concept: Physical Distancing and Social Solidarity. It proposed physical distance to protect each other’s and our own bodies (the realm of the border reclaimed as a protective border for each and every one), alongside social solidarity as an expression of support for each other, as a gesture of recognition of our collective and entwined fates and, specifically, in the UK, as an acknowledgement of support for NHS workers, along with the commitment to volunteer to aid the vulnerable. This slogan, Physical Distancing and Social Solidarity, affirmed the desire to support each other through our loneliness, at the start, back when there was still some hope and a spirit of experimentation existed. And, in small ways, efforts were made, with all the delight of novelty and reinvention in adversity, to experience things communally, in Zoom pub quizzes and free theatre broadcast online. Perimeters of safety might have separated us, but we reached out across them. We had, in a most remarkable way, a resource of hope that emerged in the shape of utopian imagery.
In these early days of the global pandemic, reports surfaced here and there of improvements in the quality of air and water across the world. Pollution levels decreased as production and traffic ceased abruptly and remained inactive for a while. Images circulated of tribes of mountain goats and singular of wild boar exploring deserted cities and schools of dolphins exuberantly splashing in the Bosporus. Some were hoaxes, faked with photo manipulation software, but all spoke momentarily to the idea that the disruption that had come from some sort of imbalance in human-animal interrelations could result in a re-righting in favour of nature. This vision persists in proposals that campaign for the rewilding of city centres after the pandemic, the turning of rapidly-declining shopping malls, which are victims of the turn to online shopping, into wetlands, pocket woodlands and wildflower meadows. Nature serves as a haven to guarantee human well-being, as it long has done in Utopian thinking, at least since the Lotus Eaters languorously whiled away their time in a narcotic haze of delightful apathy; the Hyperborea led a perfect existence beyond the North Winds, amidst the poplar trees and two crops of grain a year, living in a permanent Spring; in Thomas More’s Utopia, “they cultivate their gardens with great care so that they have both vines, fruits, herbs, and flowers in them” (1). Later, William Morris drew nature – made almost palpable on the flat walls on well-furnished parlours with coiling leaves, delicate flowers, ripe fruits – into his utopian counter-imagining of the industrial factory society. (2) The more industrialised the environment, he suggested, the less natural it seems to be. After industrialism, after the consumerism that demands industrialism, it would seem only just and right that nature might flourish, at the expense of non-nature.
Nature is presented as a guarantor of cyclicality, reproduction and predictability – which would suggest it is in antithesis to history, with its contingency, its sudden twists and turns and subjection to human machinations. And yet, it is increasingly evident that nature is subject to history, and what may once have seemed more or less eternal – according to human scale – is in fact susceptible to rapid evolution, extinction, or, in the specific form of the poles, unstoppable melting. As a result of this, a glacial pace – once the tempo of a slow and virtually unchanging nature – not may refer not to something long and drawn out, but rather an abrupt turn without return. Nature becomes unknown and unknowable. In its becoming unknown, is it the case that we humans, as a special but connected part of nature, are also blocked from knowing part of ourselves. Philosophers have long debated the extent to which humans are part of nature or separate from nature or an exceptional case of self-conscious nature. The notion of ‘human nature’ implies a special relationship of humans to nature, but the argument tends to devolve into questions of inherent selfishness or the relationship of the self to rationality, ethical behaviour or original sin. Another line of philosophical enquiry explores in a different way the presence of nature within the human and the extent of to which humanness is present within nature. When Hegel, as one example of this, observed a child flinging stones into a river and enjoying the circles that erupt on the surface of the water, he decreed that humans possess an inherent need to make, or reproduce themselves in an external world. (3) This desire to create something is their nature. This is not congruent with the nature of animals. Animals are compelled by instinct or by the drive of their immediate appetites and so gobble up or ravage the surrounding world that becomes their food or home. The rat gnaws through the basket. The sheep eats up all the grass that can be found. Humans, by contrast, are assumed to cultivate a mediated relationship to nature, shaping it towards use and beauty. They build with it and on it and through it. They make homes to be sustained over time. Overcoming a sense of terror before nature’s immense powers, humans extend themselves, though this may come with an attitude that assumes nature exists solely for human benefit. Humans direct nature and augment nature to ends that suit humans. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels take up this thought: through action on nature, humans develop their needs. With the emergence of language, humans develop self-consciousness, developing away from what Marx and Engels call primitive “herd consciousness” (4). The herd dissipates into individuals. Forsaking animalistic existence, division of labour comes into being. The separation into material and mental labour domains, including the emergence of ideologues in the form of priests, increases the level of complexity of the social form. Consciousness issues in imagination, ideology, theology, ethics, theory – spheres that appear to float above nature and the material world. Humanhood is created through work on nature, a work that comes increasingly to degrade it. This results, in its most refined aspect, in works of art, with nature reflected, shaped, imitated, arranged and negated in artifice. It also, by some complex tanglings up with the capitalist value form, also come to destroy nature and make it ravaged in ways that, for the most part, far exceed anything that sentient nature might attempt to achieve.
Disruption in the Stalls
Human intervention into plant and animal life is extensive today. Nature is artificialised. Cattle makes for an interesting case, because bleeding edge technologies frequently seem to be trialled here. Cows’ bodies have historically served as test subjects, as laboratories of future bio-intervention, for example, for IVF and all sorts of reproductive technologies. Cows today, and more and more, crowd together in megafarms, overseen by watchful and analytic digital systems, including facial and hide recognition systems. These new factories for the digitalised cow are hi-tech air-conditioned stalls, where computerised machinery monitors and logs each move made by the cow, each emission, each production that emanates from the herd. In the contemporary dairy, every mouthful of milk that is extracted can be traced to source. Every cow in Ireland has a unique number. No cow is anonymous. The number of each cow is entered into a central government-managed database. No cow can stray. No cow is ever lost, but only ever tracked, as it wanders green pastures to make milk and butter for export. Each mouthful of milk might be traced to source. Farming is a highly technologised business, with data another output of agriculture. There are many herd software platforms on the market. Breeding, vaccinations, lactation events can all be monitored. An Irish company Cainthus has developed a digital vision system that gathers information on each animal, in order “to passively monitor your cows 24/7 and analyse their well-being, productivity and performance, alerting you when it matters most” (5) through daily notification to a phone and detailed analytics. If one is acting aberrantly or feeding erratically, the system will know and in real time. How much milk a cow produces is measured, even if this is sometimes averaged across herds. This data can be combined with other datasets, for example with meteorological data to produce parameters for ‘smart grazing.’ There is a wish to know how much each cow eats, drinks, if she is lame or her udders inflamed and in need of medical attention, if she is acting in ways that are coded as strange. Cow cortisol is tracked – the stress levels monitored and annexed to production outputs. The system will understand the ‘time budget’ for cows in each pen and identify areas for improvement. Is there enough food, too much food, too much water, is she not drinking enough compared to the others? And if these anomalies can be eradicated, then production will rise and the milk will not be spoilt. She can always make more milk. The system monitors the “key animal and dairy farm performance indicators, enabling you to gain vital knowledge and actionable insights to improve your farm’s overall profitability and productivity.” (6) The read-outs will join up in a mass refrain. The cow is quantified, like the self has been quantified. The cow is number. The milk is number. The butter is number. The days are numbered.
Cows produce milk – under digital circumstances not of their choosing. Milk is like crude oil. It goes into refineries and emerges in the form of complex products and derivatives that are traded around the globe. It is a resource for multiple extractions. The dairy industry is now organised around ‘milk mining.’ To mine milk is to produce many derivatives from it. Milk is mined for multiple commodity lines. Milk is described as intelligent and it is mined for bio-active substances that support human health. After successful mining and extraction, the prices for these micro-commodities can boom or crash because of political and economic storms in local markets. Within a day’s trading, the value of the whole bodies of the cows and the lives of farmers are altered by the fluctuations of these micro-nutrient derivatives. These are the disruptions that occur behind our back, outside of our vision for the most part, but still determining our world; whether this or that flows, what flows flow, what are impeded.
Humans have been involved for millennia with cows. Our co-existence projects into pasts. But at what point did it become clear that what they suffer is soon to come to us. Through them, we predict our futures. It is not the cyborg human who stands before us – but the cyborg cow. And if we would wish to predict the near future, the next decades, look at female cows, in particular, because their bodies are the testing grounds of the new pastures, the vanguard of bodies disassembled, reassembled, invested in and exchanged in the integrated circuit of agribusiness. They are the testing grounds of new modes of IVF, so crucial is genetic breeding to their fate, and we will thanklessly adapt the results. A weird emblem of futures appeared in September 2019 in a remote village in Argentina, where, as a result of a spontaneous mutation caused by the action of mutagens, physical, chemical or biological agents altering genetic sequencing, a cow was born with a human face. (7) The mutant calf, with its small nose and mouth, was briefly famous through a YouTube video and then it appeared in countless new sources. It lived but a few hours, unable to support the weight of its strange head. What muddled physiologies, what chimeras of our new age to come? We speak a common body language. They are the testing grounds of new modes of IVF, so crucial is genetic breeding to their fate, and we will thanklessly adapt the results. Human technologies are given back to them to, and adapted in their lights. The systems developed now rely on facial recognition technologies. This was arranged to map the flattish faces of humans. The elongated heads of cows are hard to map and so the colour patterns on their hides feature as sign of their uniqueness. Cows do not hold still enough for their portraits to be made. That system is designed for large farms, with many cows who do not roam in pastures. Irish farms with their few hundred animals making their way around pastures evade the camera look. It is for barn-based cows in their mega farms. We may be held in pens too in the future. The privatised streets and squares are an expanding presence, and in them the rules are set by owners and might include banning political protest, or even photographing or filming by us, but not by those who rule the space of the ‘new enclosures,’ gaps made in the city’s fabric in order that certain flows and certain activities might be managed at will, and under the banner of profit. In the private faux-public spaces of a new London, in the former landscapes of labour turned high-end consumerism, where we roam on privatised high-cost consumer pastures, in the shadow of the digital superstore and the art college, clutching our flat whites of aerated milk, the facial recognition software is never off, soundlessly watching, actively communicating, a policeman in the sky, on the edge of the building. There is no disruption to this flow of information – it must be on 24/7.
Borders and Butters
One of the things crucial to the production of butter in Ireland is the role of the border. A border disrupts. It disrupts flows, impedes progress. Before global misery was instigated by a pandemic and borders became everywhere hard, as in hard to cross because of the freeze on movement, there was, in Britain and the UK, an existing trauma around borders and free movement and it was called Brexit, the contracted name of the exit of Britain, or rather the United Kingdom, from the European Customs Union. Butter was ensnared in this. A hard, reinforced border, cutting through Ireland as if it were a slab of butter to be divided, disrupted the crossings of this commodity over the border, multiple crossings, perhaps six times in the production cycle, of milk and milk products, animals, semen, and the vehicles that transport them and the drivers that deliver them. To make this border hard again – which was one of the most contested aspects of the negotiations around Brexit and the role of Northern Ireland and Eire in it – opens up a history of hundreds of years of violence, years when England used Ireland as a larder. While over time the transactions have become economic, the attitudes of entitlement, childish snatching and infantile spite may be quickly revived. Unhappiness grows. The milk-crates, full of the Molotov cocktails that the IRA used as weapons, it was feared, may stack up again on the street corners.
Imagine all that milk held up at the border. The milk needs to get across, before it goes sour, to get to the cups and bowls of people in the divided island. But it can’t get through in a scenario where the state has become dysfunctional, and the infrastructure is now a political pawn. The milkman can’t deliver the milk, won’t deliver it, or is not able to. The milk is denied free movement. In this situation, the milk, at some point, sour. All of the monitoring, all of the technical control over the production of this liquid comes to count for nothing. Discussions can turn sour too. They do turn sour, when politics has become a strange game of one-upmanship, playground punishments, cynicism and incompetence. A combined and cooperative dairy island has, in this instance, been cut in two, into two neighbours that are unable to talk or share a drink together. It is a hard border. And as the saying goes – hard cheese to those who suffer it. Hard cheese to you if this happens. This is the way of the world, the irrational world, where capital is sometimes disrupted and something breaks down, decomposes for a while. The milk flow might be restricted. And then someone will not be getting their 117,000 tonnes of cheese valued at €380m – of which 97,000t was cheddar worth €310m. Someone will not be getting their 44,000t of butter worth €225m, nor their 48,000t of milk powders valued at €74m. Hard cheese. It is all in vain. Words fly around, invented by political exigencies and idiocies. Mishearings corrupt their minimal signifying power. Butterstop. Buttercup. Backdoor. Deadlock. Tub-o-Gold. Golden Farm. Who is milking who? Will the fat of the land be cast into the turbulent sea? What foamy water will yet give up this grass-fed bounty, as if we were not separated, were still a unity? We’ll meet again, we’ll part once more. The spot I’ll seek if the hour you’ll find. What can we extract from this spilt and split milk situation? They, someone or other, are frothing at the mouth about it. All. Politics is a frothing at the mouth, a soured atmosphere. This shaken milk, foamy weapon. This stain on the body social. This biomass, can it be mined? What rituals? What science can unlock it? Chains of proteins. Supply chains. Coffee shop chains. The butter roads, the golden veins that stretch well into the distance. But that is all another story of many connections in the world of flows and disrupted passage, and old and modern histories, in a land whose overlords chased its people away, so it might become solely “the fruitful mother of flocks and herds” (8).
What does it mean to disrupt? One man’s disruption is another’s business as usual, or better business than usual. Every capitalist knows that – and there are management doctrines of creative disruption and disruptive innovation. A statue of a slaveowner thrown in a harbour – as in Bristol during the pandemic in 2020, in Bristol, when slaver Edward Colson’s effigy met a watery end, as an act of solidarity with BLM, before beginning again, and being salvaged for the history gallery – is a brilliant act of disruption to the social fabric of the city. Its salvaging becomes a teachable moment which might be a recuperation, a remediation of the disruption as at best a teachable moment, and, less charitably, a boost to tourist receipts and an easy win for decolonising assets without changing much.
As a pandemic, caused by a virus, spread across the world in 2020, there was much talk of ‘herd immunity.’ Herd immunity is the name for a situation in which a transmissible infectious disease is stymied in its spreading because a large proportion of the population is immune to the disease. Herd immunity is usually achieved by vaccination programmes – and such quest for immunity is bound up with cattle. A cow is a vaccine factory. Cows donated not only this idea of an immune herd, they also donated their name to vaccines, or rather a pox virus that infected them, vaccinia, and was transferred to milkmaids, blemishing them with pustules on the hands and forearms. These milkmaids were immune to smallpox epidemics – so Edward Jenner extracted pus from the lesions on a milkmaid’s hands and placed it in a cut that he made in the arm of an eight-year-old boy. With this, vaccination began. Cows are always useful for human medicine. For example, it has been found that the neutralising antibodies for HIV are elongated and gangly. Cows’ normal antibodies are elongated and gangly too. These long antibodies coil into grooves and crevices, where human antibodies cannot reach. Injected with a protein that mimics HIV’s envelope, they quickly produce antibodies that block a variety of viral strains. In cows’ four-chambered stomachs are heaps and heaps of digestive microbes, which push their immune system to be flexible and responsive. Now, in a more widespread manner, the populace is a herd, is become cattle and should be treated as such. In the absence initially of a vaccine, populaces had to develop immunity for themselves, if we could survive it. 2020 was the realisation that a physiological event could become a computational mega-event – a something happening to all animal life and constantly – and there would be no returning to some before when immunity was not considered eligible for passports – on the basis of a meshing of blood analysis and facial recognition systems – a time before immunoprivilege and immunodeprivation became concepts, as doors closed or opened and the herd was tracked in mass socially distanced phrenology as it moved through the cities. The strange hybrid is us, a herd, a clump of consumers, a social body, is either a herd of humans treated as cows in the new pens of the privatised city space, or it is the collective, a body of many parts, of tangle of many expressing solidarity even as they remain distant.
Our lives were and are disrupted. Cows may offer glimpses into futures, but none of us know what the future will be like and what and when the world will seem to us normal again – though for many in 2021 it seemed as if something was over. But we might also think about how this period has taught us – to cite Benjamin’s thought – that what is tagged as normal is not necessarily always un-catastrophic, for everyone. Amidst the disruption is more disruption – if business as usual is impeded, how much else starts to crumble when the fabric of convention is rent? Standstill holds up the flow and opens it to scrutiny. And more locally, I have tried to show what it could mean to disrupt – in small ways, in the ways open to me as a paid thinker – to disrupt thinking – to hold up a word, a thought, an idea and try to see it from many angles?
We live in vicious times, but times have long been vicious. Are they more vicious now – what extractions from the earth and from our bodies occur and is it worse now – worse under the pandemic, worse once the pandemic captured all attention – than in the period of the first primitive accumulation as peasants were thrown off the lands and dispossessed, not just of place but also of their own energies. Marx delineates the effects of this activity on the bodies of those that suffer it. Marx observed a particular case of vengeful capital in the colonising of Ireland by England. He states blankly: “The potato blight resulted from soil exhaustion it was a product of English rule.” (9) And as a result, Marx argued, “England created those abominable ‘conditions of society’ which enable a small caste of rapacious lordlings to dictate to the Irish people the terms on which they shall be allowed to hold the land and live upon it.” (10) People and earth are depleted. The bodies have no food. Chemical elements such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are assimilated into products that are then removed from the fields, transported far away. The soil is exhausted, its nutrients robbed by systems of farming that do not replenish. As Marx put it in Capital, it “must not be forgotten that for a century and a half, England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.” (11) There is no replacement of these soil constituents, as the land must be forced to yield too quickly. The land is overworked, its aspects extracted excessively. The soil is underfed. Those who might have fed them, the cottier class, occupying a small plot on the tenant-farmer’s land to grow potatoes and live, in exchange for carrying out jobs when needed, were those who were forced to leave the land to find means of survival by emigration. In the urban centres where the products are enjoyed, these nutrients are excreted into waterways and streets and cause pollution. All is out of balance. A “small class of land monopolists” (12), a rapacious caste of landlords whose privileged existence stemmed from the colonial plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries, dictated the terms on which the land they owned but did not farm could be used. And they produced a dependence on the potato, for the peasantry “lived on potatoes and water,” while “wheat and meat were sent to England.” (13) When the Great Famine came, the result of a potato disease, these were the types to make the most of what Marx calls a “conscious and deliberate system.”
The result in Ireland was that the population fell dramatically while cattle production increased. Marx notes bitterly Lord Dufferin wants to convert Ireland into a mere sheep pasture, and believes the population is still far too high. And so the Irish have taken not only their bones but themselves to America, and the cry exoriare aliquis ultor (rise some avenger) resounds threateningly on the other side of the Atlantic. This line, by Dido in the Aeneid, speaks of revenge, but a revenge carried out by the cunning of history, and served cold maybe. Those bones that drag themselves and their memories across the ocean are the bones that should have fertilised the soil, in various ways, including in the direct manner suggested by Justus Liebig. Out of those bones, those slaughtered and dispossessed bones, will come new life, elsewhere. What is gone to the colonies is called by some human capital, and in time it will power up America and, in this way, the English imperialism that made a grave of the fields in Ireland, will have dug its own grave. And there were Irish men who would use their experience as soldiers in the American Civil War to fight British forces in the homeland again, from 1858, through the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenian Brotherhood and Clan na Gael, with the aim to create an Irish Republic. Revenge again. The ground is ravaged. Nature is exhausted. Another cycle, another revolution is necessary.
For Benjamin, the Parisian arcades of the 19th century, which is simultaneous with this rape of the land and the peasant, and the culture of consumerism these arcades ushered in, are identified as prerequisites of a fascism he lives through – and dies within – in the 1930s. Fascism cannot be understood without reference to capitalism, both in terms of its economic basis and in the way in which people are encouraged to conceive themselves, against all reality, as consumers, on the one hand, which is to say individuals, and, on the other, national masses, agglomerated into broad categories, the broader and vaguer the better, in the interests of excluding other broad and vague categories as enemies. A system formed around revenge and spite. But the arcades and other similar 19th- century forms, such as railway stations, museums, exhibition halls, also fizzed with utopian promise, the promise of luxuries, of mobility, of knowledge. The contemporary ‘hell’ of commodity production and capitalist society can be probed to reveal traces of hope, but it is also the forging ground of a consumerist mentality that feeds fascism and an aestheticisation that amplifies the cultivation of myth, the ground on which fascism thrives. It is a ground that the critical theory of Ernst Bloch covers in a provocative way too, factoring in the peculiar way in which time realises itself underneath the crust of rationalised capitalist abstract time. Ernst Bloch’s concept of non-synchronicity alerts us to the way in which certain ideological elements and social formations endure after their supposed time, such as the continuation of feudal structures and values in capitalist societies. The true meaning of Hitlerism, Bloch argued in 1935, was the ‘dominance of big capital through […] romantic illusions’ about a glorious past. But here was the flaw too – for there was a “capacity for seduction through precisely these illusions” – whose material stems from the ‘class contents of non-synchronous misery,” which he regarded as pressed into the ‘mere service and overwhelming misuse of big capital.” (14)
What non-synchronous misery today? What forms of spite to spite the other to distract from one’s own pain? The UK, as elsewhere, hosts a social climate that oscillates between, on the one hand, a political economy of nostalgia about a never when before our alienation and ‘the rot’ set in (strongly reminiscent of a fantasy 1940s) and, on the other, a techno-utopian euphoria and exaltation in the face of our own extinction, our wipe out by deindustrialization and robots, which is an enhanced cyber-version of Benjamin’s abhorrence of humanity’s capacity to “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” (15) In these mean times, the techno-fetishism of fascism has returned (if it ever went away) in extraordinary ways in the ideas of venture capitalist Trump associates such as Peter Thiel. Thiel, for one, despises democracy and is working to dismantle it, operating in the penumbra of ‘dark enlightenment’ ideas and siphoning some of his billions towards ‘radical science’ projects through the Thiel foundation. The foundation promotes, for example, seasteading, or off-shore nation formation, anti-matter space propulsion, embedded biomodules to measure constantly the autonomic nervous system or reprogramming of a patient’s own cells to create a sustained, personalised drug factory. These are technologically enhanced futures carried out under privatised relations of production.
To become a robot, an automaton, – or one of a herd or one of a fleet of automated beings – is to become the thing that will displace you. It is also the gratifying dream – to be automated, having alienated all of our being to Alexa and Miss Google, and any other electronic women who are meant to be at our beck and call. To be a robot is also to make oneself an indifferent thing, for protection, in a time of loss. In an age of the surveillance state and corporate data extraction, to be bodiless seems to represent emancipatory freedoms. If we have no body, we can feel no pain. But what we really know is, within our lifetimes at the very least, to be without a body is quite simply to be dead. There is no more present, efficient and fast acting way for a state to perpetrate ultraviolence on the bodies of its citizens, than the removal of a public health service. At the same time, bodies are called on to be resilient, compliant, flexible, hardworking. Rising to the challenge, these robust workers see their wages and benefits tumble in the name of ‘incentivisation’ to increase productivity and self-reliance. Hardship is perceived as a choice, not a structural reality. For any privation there is an easy reason: immigration. Someone else came from somewhere else and did this to you, when you were not looking.
We are less and less we. We are losing. Losing our jobs. Losing our security. Losing our rights. Losing our countries and our continents. Losing our planet. Losing our nature. Losing our mind. Losing our solidarity. Losing our humanity. In this world, violence is the currency freely flowing outwards and inwards, when hitting oneself and being hit – pain and spite – are indistinguishable and interminable. We are ‘damaged life.’ What critical theory, in its various forms, takes as a given is the reflexive turn towards the perpetrator – to see that person as in various ways themselves damaged, hurt, wounded, victimised. Oppression in the workplace, disempowerment or everyday workaday alienation makes of the self a ball of disappointment mixed with anger, the target of broken promises and structural relations that seize stuff, power and life from the worker, but fuzzes their head such that they misidentify the thief of it all: the agents of capital and capitalism. To take such a stance is to refuse to participate in a blame game, or to naturalise the existence of racisms, the susceptibility to fascism and neo-Rightism. In Negative Dialectics, where Theodor W. Adorno expresses the side from which his work emanates, criticising in the name of a form of existence that is still to be made actual:
What dissolves the fetish is the insight that things are not simply so and not otherwise, that they have come to be under certain conditions. Their becoming fades and swells within the things; it can no more be stabilized in their concepts than it can be split off from their own results and forgotten. [...] The means employed in negative dialectics for the penetration of its hardened objects is possibility – the possibility of which their reality has cheated the objects and which is nonetheless visible in each one. (16)
Adorno’s primary affiliation is to abstruse cultural forms, such as twelve-tone music, and so it may seem surprising to see how sentimental he was as regards animals. He felt a powerful affinity to animals. In them, or in conjunction with them, he finds something worthy of the name Utopia. A vignette of his imagines this, outlining a properly human existence as one in which one does nothing, like a beast. One rests, cloud-gazing, mindlessly, placidly chewing cud. To dream, as do so many Utopians, of the limitless production of commodities, of hectic activity in the model society, reproduces, he claims, an entrenched capitalist mentality of production as its own end. To disengage from our historical form that has been adapted merely to production, and in so doing to work against work itself, to do nothing in a proper society, in which we accept nature, and ourselves, as natural, might return us to a herd consciousness. That is to say, it rejects the notion of nature as something that should safeguard us, provide us with solace, for this is a thought built on the fantasy that we are not nature. Instead it leads us into ourselves as inextricably interrelated in nature in the world and always. From there, we might begin to save ourselves along with everything and everyone else.
1. Thomas More, Utopia. In: Ideal Commonwealths. Ed. Henry Morley. London et al.: Routledge, 1885, 94.
2. See William Morris, Full Colour Patterns and Designs. Dover and New York: Dover Publications, 1988.
3. Friedrich G. W. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vol. 1. Clarendon Press, 1998, 31.
4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974, 51.
7. John Bennett, “Mutant calf with a ‘human’ face is born in Argentina to the amazement of farmers.” Daily Mail, 9 September 2019, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7444607/Mutant-calf-human-face-born-Argentina-amazement-farmers.html. Accessed 31 October 2021.
8. William J. O’Neill Daunt, Ireland and Her Agitators. Dublin: John Mullany, 1867, 286.
9. Eccarius, qtd. in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971, 141.
10. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question 61.
11. Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One. Trans. Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth et al.: Penguin, 1976, 860.
12. Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question 59–60.
13. Eccarius, qtd. in ibid., 141.
14. See Ernst Bloch, Heritage of our Times. Trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: U of California P, 1990.
15. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969, 242.
16. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1973, 52.