Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus

Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus

by Matthew Segall

What follows is a brief paper outlining a path forward for post-pandemic humanity. It attempts to integrate Marxist critiques of capitalism with the efforts of contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers to compose an alternative ecological civilization. 

Audio of this blog post.

A specter is haunting modern civilization—the specter of Gaia. All the powers of the global capitalist market have been entering into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. The name “Gaia” is borrowed from the scientific hypothesis of James Lovelock, who himself borrowed it from author William Golding, who in turn borrowed it from Hesiod’s telling of ancient Greek cosmogony. Do not imagine an anthropomorphized goddess, “Mother Nature,” when you hear this term. Imagine instead a gigantic, even monstrous assemblage of coevolving lifeforms precariously perched upon a complex, self-organizing set of geochemical feedback loops necessary for maintaining the habitability of this planet. For several hundred years, this living Earth has been treated as a mere background to human activity, a storehouse of raw materials to be violently exploited, a passive stage upon which our technological progress could unfold indefinitely. But Gaia could not be dispelled by the industrial might or monetary magic of global capitalism. Gaia has only been further provoked by it. 

Despite the wishful thinking of capitalist economists, the market is not a “perpetual motion machine” insulated from the biophysical inevitabilities of entropy and extinction. Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, the human economy has always existed at the grace of the Earth’s ecology. Whether agricultural, industrial, or informational, our species has undertaken each new mode of production with tremendous Promethean creativity, but also with increasing ignorance of the geophysiological conditions making it all possible.

“Gaia’s intrusion,” as the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has referred to it, has always been inevitable, but until very recently, it was for the most part only decipherable scientifically through complex data sets and computer simulations of global temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and many other relatively abstract metrics detailing the fraying of its feedback loops. Timelines stretching to the end of this century warned of the dire consequences of failing to take bold action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reverse other ecologically unsustainable practices. Insurance companies were beginning to feel uneasy about the increasing severity of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, but surely Gaia could wait for the market to adapt. 

With the rapid and virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic (likely a spillover effect of habitat loss*), the situation is just as it was before, only massively accelerated. After a decades-long trial period, planetary transformation is now no longer optional: “we do not have any choice, because [Gaia] will not wait.” 

What remained a specter only a few weeks ago—a barely perceptible threat safely hidden behind the noise and smog of business as usual—has now brought the entirety of modern human civilization to its knees. The immediate public health threat posed by the virus is potentially catastrophic on its own. And with most of the world’s human population unable to consume or produce at the ever-increasing rates required of a capitalist system, the economic fallout threatens to become even more severe. 

Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Jameson’s statement was borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin, whose original utterance was composed as a question: “What could [our species] create if [we] were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?” With the old world now on the brink as humanity is brought to its knees by Gaia,—the for too long taken for granted ground beneath our feet,—our species has a fateful decision to make. Will we continue to pray to the God of the Market by imposing another round of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or might we invoke an older god? 

To Marxist ears, the invocation of a god, especially one with the mythic residue of “Gaia,” resounds of ideology. Why leave our capitalist chains behind only to succumb to a new, or ancient, opiate of the masses? Worse, my narrative account of our current situation as the disruption of the human political economy due to the intrusion of a seemingly outside natural power appears to be a textbook case of the process Roland Barthes warned about more than half a century ago, whereby “the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature”; this, according to Barthes, is “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature.”

But Gaia has not come in any form recognized by the terms of the modern constitution, signed by Marxists and capitalists alike, which placed a metaphysical chasm between human society and physical nature: the historical realization of freedom on one side, mere matter to be mastered by it on the other. “If man is shaped by the environment,” Marx wrote, “his environment must be made human.” Even Marx’s dialectical materialism remains insensitive to Gaia’s non-modern mode of composition. Gaia is not “the environment,” not “Nature” as modern people have conceived of her. Gaia does not passively suffer our historical projects. Nor has Gaia come in the ancient form imagined by our ancestors. Gaia is not natural and not mythical. Gaia is a geohistorical hybrid, to use Bruno Latour’s favored definition. Latour asks us to face Gaia not as a transcendent mythical or immanent natural unifier, but as a call to return to concrete, earthbound existence as members of a Whiteheadian “democracy of fellow creatures.” Gaia is just as much a historical agent as we are, if not more so.

Finding ways to get along with the bizarre biological neighbors modernity has for several centuries prided itself on ignoring will not be easy, as the still unfolding COVID-19 crisis exemplifies. Human survival in this new/old Gaian reality will require reimagining our political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms. Our concept of “society” will need to be expanded to include non-humans. Time itself will need restorying: History has always been ending; myth endlessly beginning; and creation forever ongoing. We are not the rational animal capable of calculating profit and loss in advance of our exchanges. We are not lords of the land and owners of private property. We are coevolving creatures like all others, bound by a single atmosphere, of a kind with the bacteria that fertilize the soil, with the wheat and fruit trees, with the bees that pollinate their flowers, with all the other plants and animals. Becoming Gaian is not so much a matter of reinventing ourselves as “merely” biological organisms as of shedding our god-like Promethean ambitions, of learning to settle down here on the earth beneath the sky instead of setting sail once more, this time beyond all finite horizons, as if Mars, too, could be colonized and capitalized. Contrary to the dualisms of the modern world view, the capitalist economy cannot float above its material conditions like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, our species is not destined for space capitalism. All that is solid has not melted into air. Even the “cloud” that hosts our digital economy depends upon massive super-cooled server farms and undersea cables to power its invisible network. 

Marx and Engles could not have foreseen the specific condition—a viral pandemic—that would finally initiate the dialectical self-overcoming of capitalism. But they did predict that capitalism, by expanding the market over the entire surface of the globe and establishing connections everywhere, would at last compel each of us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our true relations to others of our kind. Our conditions of life, and our shared vulnerability, have never been been more apparent than during this planetary quarantine. Millions of people will soon find themselves in need of medical care, and billions more will need an economic lifeline. All humanity, despite our social distancing and our cultural diversity, must now unite against a common enemy. But who is this enemy? COVID-19? If we are no longer modern, we cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from this viral agent, as though “Nature” had raised a microscopic army against us. After all, maybe we are the virus. Maybe COVID-19 is a Gaian antibody. Nonsense: we, too, are Gaians. We, too, have a place on this planet, if only we would learn to inhabit it more humbly. 

What would it mean to be civilized in a humbler non-modern, or ecological way? Alfred North Whitehead was willing to consider that even some squirrels may be capable of it. For Whitehead, civilization implies conscious participation in the creative power of ideas—like freedom or love—to shape history. Whitehead is not an idealist, however. He is an organic realist. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat is capable of supporting their ingression.

Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or typed into computers by human hands. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an invitation to consider the possibility that the idea of the Good participates in generating the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks, butterflies, and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.

Whitehead: “The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human laboring in the economy, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.

What is value? Debates continue to rage among economists about the differences between use and exchange value, or between objective and subjective value, but ultimately Marx locates value in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity. So far so good. But the implication is that only humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.

Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extra-human that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos—and the Gaian reality we moderns are falling into—there is no more mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by someone called Man. “We have no right,” Whitehead admonishes us, “to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe.” Value is typically linked to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, Marx, or Hayek, have limited agency and thus value creation to human beings (or worse, as within capitalist social relations, value creation is even further delimited to those lucky enough to be owners of capital). 

Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination.” The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was techno-scientific: to become masters of nature. 

Gaia’s intrusion in the form of a viral pandemic is turning our lives upside down and inside out. Perhaps now, from the perspective it has granted us, we will come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the Earth, enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding. 

We must re-think human freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered. Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic. Marx said that the worst human architect is distinguished from the best honey bee by the fact that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human or bee creativity works? Organic architect Christopher Alexander studied how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.

Where to go from here? In place of deterministic teleology, we need processes of relational creativity. In place of individual competition and class hierarchy, democracy and social solidarity. In place of a Big Plan from on high, playful kin-making with the community of nonhuman beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise share this planet with. Instead of providential history, we must settle for what anthropologist James Clifford calls “big enough” stories that remain “ontologically unfinished” and “situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue.”

We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to respectfully recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help sensitize us to the values of nonhumans. Our survival depends on it. 

Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we to justify our presence on the Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society? These are questions any civilization hoping to survive the next century is going to need to answer.

Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 30 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development. Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.

Marx, of course, was not unaware of our profound connection to the Earth: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In Capital, he writes of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.” I do not mean to downplay the extent to which Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-earth relation goes a long way toward describing our new Gaian reality. But he still could not shake the all too modern tendency to treat Earth as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness. So with Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this) but a cosmological power from which our human values, and our human power, derives.

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* “horseshoe bats are the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-like virus and that civets are the amplification host highlight the importance of wildlife and biosecurity in farms and wet markets, which can serve as the source and amplification centers for emerging infections” (from a meta-analysis of medical studies on coronaviruses).

Bibliography

Neil Irwin, “One Simple Idea That Explains Why the Economy Is in Great Danger” in the New York Times, March 17th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/upshot/coronavirus-economy-crisis-demand-shock.html?referringSource=articleShare

Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, Jamie R. Oaks. “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover.” Trends in Parasitology, 2019; 35 (6): 399 DOI: 10.1016/j.pt.2019.03.010

Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 50. https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/978-1-78542-010-8_In-Catastrophic-Times_Stengers.pdf

Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), 76. 

Franklin, “What are we to make of J.G. Ballard’s Apocalypse?”; https://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/ballard_apocalypse_1979.html; credit is due to Matthew Beaumont for pointing out Jameson’s sources (see “Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion” in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader (2014). 

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007)

Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), 141, 129.

Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Whitehead, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” (1844). 

20 Comments

  1. Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep . . .

    I do hope that you are right; And that the insubstantiality, as well as unsustainably, of a rapacious capitalist system—“perpetually” snuffling-out one site after another, to dig deep holes, and to expose yet more commodities to scoop out of the earth and consume—will clearly be irrefutable in the face of a post-pandemic breakdown of economic systems; where excess, exploitation, and god-granted exceptionalism are slogans and not sins. But my flinty stone heart still doubts that the Cartesian duality that has animated the ghosts of our ingenuities, as well as our monstrous machines, for so long will be able to reframe our sensibilities definitely, even in the face of such unavoidable collapse. In a Latourean approach toward our very non-modern modernity, the crisis; the tipping point; the wake-up call; is and has been happening like an burning, orbital klaxon for decades—and yet still, old gods reign, while nature and culture are are encouraged to define themselves as separate mysteries, locked in a struggle for dominance.

    In any case, I still would like to be on the side of the (r)evolution. Thanks for this.

  2. I share your hope that the global plague of 2020 may inspire us to rethink our relationship to nature. Once we understand that we are part of nature, rather than apart from it and able to exploit it with impunity, then we can hope for patterns of behaviour that are less ruthlessly consumptive, as we realize that by consuming the Earth, we are consuming ourselves. But I don’t share your optimism that this is the crisis that will turn the tide. The consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak, as it wrecks an economy founded on capitalist expectations of infinite growth and simultaneously throws each individual into the realm of the personal, of family and friends, home and neighbourhood, do not need to reach beyond the world of the human. We are not called upon by this crisis to care for the soil, or the trees, or the squirrels as they count their young. In our efforts to fight the disease, we have dissected its genetic code, and we are frantically manipulating matter, indeed the very stuff of life, to control it — not to live symbiotically with it. Nor is this a bad thing, all considered.

    We can hope that this catastrophe, with its prolonged requirement for a communitarian mindset, may shake some from the complacency of isolationist individualism that underlies so much of capitalism and its rapacious excesses. This may happen because people are forced by circumstance to recognize that caring for oneself and caring for others are one and the same; or more personally, it may happen because people are brought closer together, paradoxically, by enforced isolation, and brought to understand this way “for whom the bell tolls.”

    You ask, “What is value?” Perhaps the pertinent quote from Whitehead is this: “For Goodness is a qualification belonging to the constitution of reality, which in any of its individual actualizations is better or worse” (Adventures of Ideas, p. 268). Each occasion simply evaluates “better or worse”; the Marxist definition of value, and most every other, is some complex, highly articulated expression of this primal valuation. As you suggest, this valuation of “better or worse” is not necessarily a selfish choice for the occasion, since the occasion is in interaction with, and in significant ways constituted by, every other occasion. But all life, from humans through squirrels down to the quasi-life of viruses, moves at each instant toward an immediate goal, based on a simple, inchoate, primitive opposition to be characterized as “better or worse.” This is, I think, for Whitehead the ultimate source of value.

    1. Appreciate your take, and the Whitehead reference. Thanks. But I also think we need to find a way to stop thinking in terms of “Nature” and “humans,” as if there was some great division. Somehow, we are Gaians already, even in our capitalist mode. In some ways, industrial civilization is just playing by rules of entropy, trying to maximize the rate at which we return the Earth-Sun system to equilibrium by burning as much free energy as possible. We are in a race to become conscious of our impact on the wider community of life.

      1. I agree. But to make people think in terms of Gaia, the effects of global warming or Covid-19, or the related critique of commodification, or even the taste of an optimistic anarcho-primitivism, may not be enough. What is needed is for people to envision all of nature as alive, rather than inert, and then to care for it and respect it as a living thing. This will require a classic “paradigm shift” from our predominantly materialistic understanding of the world as fundamentally inanimate. We need to re-think our view of what is real, and this is where Whitehead, with his keen critique of the scientific world-view, offers promise.

        This re-thinking or re-imagining may be aided by extreme conditions, which could spin us out of the local minimum of the current system into some other system, but their effect is inherently unpredictable. For example, they could produce an anarcho-primitivism that is not benign, like that of the so-called Dark Ages. Instead of hoping for change through disaster, we need to explore ways of bringing the world to life as a subject for more people.

  3. Some thoughts:

    The first is that whether we acknowledge it or not, we make up Gaia (or whatever we define Gaia as). I appreciate your acknowledging of dualism, and I wonder if any separation between humans and Gaia continues this severing. In that regard, we are not so much “becoming Gaia,” as we are “becoming aware of ourselves as Gaia”. Small difference maybe, but important I think. 

    Gaia is not then “waiting for the market to adapt,” or refusing to wait and bringing “civilization to its knees.” Rather, the markets and civilizations are also Gaia, the organs and essential networks and systems that allow Gaia to live in this particular form. Gaia is then (merely?) indoctrinated by a capitalist mentality, the economic fallout of which undermines Gaia’s own ability to survive, suffering from a maladaptive cosmology which has itself become a suicidal pathology. The god of the market in this regard is one archetype out of many Gaia must contend with I think. 

    Moving to Marx, I want to suggest a reason for Gaia’s depression, alienation, and suicidal tendencies. Marx writes: “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” 

    To explain that, the technological infrastructure and economic mode is characterized by very specific energy constraints conditioned by that infrastructure, tech, and economic mode, constraints which are themselves bureaucratized and made sacred by the wider society and culture it defines. This is why we get free market fundamentalists, a national security state more willing to fight to preserve “our way of life” than address the root issue generating violent opposition to that lifeway, and a counter climate change movement divorced from reality that ritualizes denial and promotes false consciousness: the economic mode is a survival technique, and has been made sacred. Anything that challenges it is heresy, and made taboo. 

    Not even realizing the economic mode is maladaptive will be enough to change society — only changing the economic mode will address the alienation and schizophrenic self-hatred driving Gaia towards psychological and physical collapse. 
    I love the characterization of Gaia as a geohistorical hybrid with concrete, earthbound existence, the nature of which reimagines and restories time itself. Dividing time up into past, present, and future similarly seems problematic, fractured into separate parts by the imposition of linear perspective (perhaps through written language?). 

    Instead, I appreciate a comment someone made to me once: “history is space through time; geography is time through space.” The nature of our place in spacetime is unique, and requires a depth of awareness to root ourselves and feel back into the whole that unites each point, reconceiving of the energy pathways and circumventing mediating institutions that we have made ourselves dependent on. 

    What I would like to bring up however, is the “enemy,” and perhaps relate it to civilization, which as you might have found by now, I think is an extremely problematic entity to fetishize. In the first place, my impression is that the depth of our rootedness into a spatial and temporal whole (“integral time?”) is perhaps severed through the choice/need to anchor ourselves into a sedentary lifestyle and impose our own egocentric values upon the wider bioregion. Whether this was done for necessity or convenience is nearly irrelevant — the effect is we no longer choose to follow migratory patterns or practice our discernment when it comes to wild species of plant, when we can domesticate them and intensify our “productivity” instead of moving to them. We are severed from the symbiotic whole and occupy a place outside of time and space. Gaia has dissociated due to an original trauma that egocentrism has wrought, before it evolves into tribal-centric, national-centric, anthropocentric forms of consciousness. That centrism is the basis of the autoimmunitary disease we are threatened by. As one person writes:

    “We had time to prepare for this pandemic at the state, local, and household level, even if the government was terribly lagging, but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics. We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk—when multiple things can go wrong together. We were hampered by our inability to think about second- and third-order effects and by our susceptibility to scientism—the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis. We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism. 
    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/03/what-really-doomed-americas-coronavirus-response/608596/

    This is the basis of civilization I think, defined in terms of the enclosure of the city, which requires the importation of resources from “elsewhere,” and in doing so, cultivates a population defined by the nature/culture, wild/domestic, human/non-human divisions that severs them from the symbiotic whole. Urbanized human natural intelligences are neither developed nor integrated with other intelligences (perhaps I am speaking for myself), and so their is a deformation of the human, scaled up to deform Gaia. The logistics needed to maintain this social arrangement demands exploitation, intensification, and large-scale coordination which in turn tends towards authoritarianism, patriarchy, institutionalized violence, intense stratification, dependence on hypercomplex technology, and an economy characterized by extreme specialization and with it the total loss of autonomy as we outsource our basic survival functions to an impersonal mass we are separated from through long supply lines that function as concretizations of our globalized alienation. 

    There is a reason why every single civilization has collapsed: their thermoeconomic governance processes break down when resources are depleted and the stratified social hierarchy can no longer legitimate itself, creating so many grievances that people finally become conscious that the source of disorder becomes the social order itself. Gaia is, in a sense, thermoeconomic governance writ large, and the cosmions we call our civilizations and cities are in a sense, very much a virus, if we define them only by their effects. http://www.brontaylor.com/courses/pdf/MacDougall–HumansCancer.pdf
    If nonhumans not only have value, but are agents of value creation, it may be the case that civilizations, cities, and the economic infrastructure and mode of production is, from their eyes, without value, an enemy of value, the antithesis of value. That is, our civilization is worthless. More than worthless, it is an existential threat to the well being of the nonhuman and human alike. It is an enemy to life. 

    But it is hard to put the desires of a nonhuman over the desires of a human. And we should remember just how easily authoritarians are so willing and able to dehumanize those with desires that do not conform to the sacred ideals they are willing to sacrifice everything for. The conversation these last days of risking millions of lives to stabilize markets is only the most recent demonstration of inhumanity that our sense of “value” has afforded. 

    To end, I am not sure civilization should attempt to justify itself so that Gaia feels better good. To do so might be simply to normalize what is unjustifiable. I think, Matt, your willingness to focus on “value” is core, but I think any answer will be limited and problematic. 

    Value, justification, and answers are all going to be different depending on our places in spacetime, and how deep we are rooted to the symbiotic whole. What we should cultivate is a dialectical process in which those competing perspectives can be brought into compassionate dialogue that can be sustained and nurtured, and where any common ground these perspectives find in doing so can become honored and supported as the new infrastructure of the ecozoic era. 

    I agree diagnosing the metaphysical roots of catastrophe is necessary to materialize a post-capitalist world, one that is self-aware of how to effectively metabolize energy into something of value. Those outside of those human arrangements commonly called civilizations have does this sustainably. I do disagree with you when you say value is not a desire however, but perhaps can compromise by saying value is a cosmological desire that draws Gaia to actualize a form worth becoming, that gives Gaia the power to integrate subject-with-desire and object-of-desire. 

    In that regard, my impression is we are responsible for considering the lifeways we want to make permanent (acknowledging their necessary impermanence), and work to habituate these. Our urban lifestyles are the greatest threat to life on earth. If we don’t acknowledge that, the suicidal effect accompanying a complete psychological and social collapse will come, and what ever left after will be so impoverished it may be hardly recognizable as the divinity it was once declared to be. 

    Thanks for the thought provoking essay~!

    TLDR: yes, the pandemic is awakening to the injustices of our political economy. Because the political economy generates those injustices, including the very causal processes that produce pandemics. Because political economy is, at its essence, grounded in injustice: settler, colonial, extractive, instrumental, egocentric processes that commodify life into civilized human defined value (out of touch with the symbiotic whole). And the hubris we approach value-making with (fallacious misplaced concreteness) comes back to us in the form of a pandemic. 

    1. I don’t have the patience to rewrite everything, but I’ll just share the highlights. Thanks for this insightful and important reply.

      1) Yes, humans and even capitalism are certainly part of Gaia. There is no dualism. And yet, there is a metabolic rift that, because of our species’ planetization, threatens to unravel many of of the feedback loops that keep the Earth community viable. I say Gaia “intrudes” not into the material-semiotic conditions of capitalism (since these conditions *are* also part of Gaia), but into the false consciousness that had led capitalist societies to imagine that their economy existed in a protected bubble floating above these conditions. The question of human/earth duality is right at the heart of the ongoing polemics between metabolic rift theorists (e.g., John Bellamy Foster) and world-ecology theorists (e.g., Jason Moore) (see https://footnotes2plato.com/2016/06/17/the-ecology-of-capitalism/).

      2) I am aware that “civilization” has more often than not been used as an excuse for barbarism. And you may be right that “agrologistics” (Tim Morton) and sedentary lifestyles may be at the root of our problem. But short of a truly massive human die off, I do not see how we can return to a nomadic existence. I believe an ecological civilization is possible, that technology can be miniaturized and agroecology can be regenerative of planetary life systems, rather than extractive.

      3) I did not mean to imply that value is not related to desire. I just meant value is not merely about *human* desire. Nonhuman value is indeed akin to a cosmic eros.

      1. Regarding 2), I don’t think that a human die-off is necessary to return to nomadic existence. How many refugees will be displaced in the upcoming years? One can imagine ecologizing cities in ways where food is available for passers by, whether that implies turning golden gate park into a food forest, or ensuring there is a ratio of square footage for urban farms per capita, or if people break up concrete and plant habitat, small scale horticulture, etc. Even providing co-ops or centers where resources are available to be shared can institutionalize principles, rather than necessitate wage-slavery. Greening the cities in ways that allows people the equivalent might be helpful, along with rewilding 50-70% of land and encouraging subsistence…all of these are pathways to move people towards the “other” side of the domestication spectrum, even if they only go so far. And of course, this would not be immediate, but transitioning over however many years/generations.

        I am skeptical of an ecological civilization, but I do believe the attempt to do so will soften the collapse, even if it cannot sustain itself ultimately. Indeed, my point above is basically this: civilization represents our highest ideal at the moment, because our imaginations are constrained by the infrastructure and bureaucratizations of the economic mode that we currently maintain the same image of the good life, and just leave out all of the bad stuff that we end up repressing. I’m concerned an “ecocivilization” is impossible, and just greenwashing what we already have, and projecting utopianism that ends up becoming dystopian very quickly. I always find it so interesting that while activists promote indigenous groups as models, when it comes to truly implementing the models, people don’t actually think those are viable. My guess it is less about viability and more about convenience. People want electricity, computers, heat, air conditioning, and running water, but don’t want to take responsibility for the mining, energy, labor, complex supply lines, and technocrats that will be needed to ensure those services are maintained, which in turn creates the same non eco-civilization we live in today. My two cents at least.

        1. The climate refugee crisis will not the same as a return to some imagined idyllic nomadic lifestyle. Something was certainly lost when humans became sedentary and the agricultural empires were born. Jams Scott’s book “Against the Grain” was an enlightening read for me on this front. Hunter-gatherers lived short lives, but they were not subject to the disease and malnutrition of agricultural peoples. Not to mention peonage. But at this point, our species has passed through several phase-transitions, and there’s just no way to go back to a nomadic lifestyle short of a truly massive die off.

          There has never been an example of an ecologically sustainable or socially just civilization. I’ll grant you that. But I do not see any reason why agricultural methods and social systems are necessarily ecological destructive or socially unjust. We can do better, if only we have the will. Bookchin’s social ecology is one model for how we might be able to move in this direction. Moderns have much to learn from indigenous people’s ways, but I think we should be careful to avoid repeating Rousseau’s old nature/society dichotomy and noble savage myth. There has never been a human society that did not have a huge impact on its surrounding ecology. The question is not whether we can “leave nature alone” or not. We cannot, no species can. We are part of the Gaian community, and we have a special role to play. The question is whether we will learn to play a regenerative and life-enhancing role, or just drive ourselves into extinction, taking many other species with us.

  4. There are a few passages in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that your essay reminded me of which I think are helpful in imagining an ecological civilization. He writes:

    “Truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.”

    And later on:

    “Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it… you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love… My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other ends of the world.”

    Rediscovering our relationship with the world around us might be what enables us to to shift our understanding of our own agency and freedom as a single, isolated, essence possessed by individuals towards something more participatory and inter-subjective in which the distinctions between individuals and the world become more porous and responsibility for ourselves and our actions is shared by all. Loving my neighbor as myself, both human and non-human, and recognizing non-human value becomes possible through the recognition that, in some sense, I am my neighbor and my neighbor is me; that perhaps the line between human and non-human is not discontinuous in the way our language might suggest.

    My faith is in something like this belief, that the path to imagining and realizing an ecological civilization is one guided by a love of this kind; the “initial Eros” aimed at a “final Beauty”. At least in principle, I think this must be a guarantee. Putting it into practice is much more difficult, but with “infinite patience” it awaits us! My hope right now is that we are able to learn to how to to do so sooner rather than later.

    Thanks for the essay and the opportunity to work these thoughts out of my head.

  5. For the record, I am not promoting an imagined idyllic nomadic lifestyle, just that nomadism will characterize the future, so we can think in terms of this reality and cultivate pathways that are amenable to it. I am not altogether sure hunter-gatherers lived short lives either..? Is this based on an average due to infanticide or due to the lack of institutionalized violence which meant the entire population would be mobilized to defend itself?

    My personal feeling is that there is a way to “go back” to a nomadic lifestyle without massive die-off: a voluntary transition that takes place over generations. That said, the point of my above comments I think was that there may very well be a truly massive die-off if the underlying problems are not addressed. Regarding the justice of agriculture, it seems to me a question of reciprocity with the soil: is more taken than put back. A book like “Soil and Civilization” highlights this relationship, stating: “both state ownership and capitalist ownership of farming land are economically and socially disastrous, and the soundest system of tenure is working-farmer ownership without the right of alienation for gain.” If the fertility of soil is valued insofar is its produce will be exchanged, then it will be exploited, and not reciprocated. If a civilization is based on nonreciprocal exploitation of soil, it will similarly collapse when fertility ceases. So, the question of human-hour-energy-acre and food-value return are important. My question is whether in a mega-city of millions of people, there is enough space to produce its food from within the city-limits. If not, then the needs of the human extend beyond its space and impose its desire and intention upon the land. Habitat is cleared for farmland. Meanwhile, who farms the land? Everyone? Who makes sure? A state? A technical device that proves my hours were achieved? Who enforces this?

    The bigger question is even if we find that eco-civilization is desireable, viable, and achievable, there is a question of whether elites will even allow these pathways to go forward, in which case you are competing with and struggling against elites for the right to the city — that is, your freedom is contingent on the degree to which others’ consciousness conforms to your ideal. Perhaps I am a pessimist but I just don’t think that is going to happen successfully, primarily because I think a lot of people with power are content with living in arrangement that benefit them and don’t see (or care about) the long-term costs. This again stems from the sort of “infrastructural determinism” that captures peoples minds, their values according with the infrastructure they rely on. As such, there will no doubt lead to a degree of compromise that will water-down this utopia. Meanwhile, we are already basically locked into an infrastructure that is predicted to drive us towards how many degree warming? So that means this radical transformation has to happen now, and not incrementally. So how would our microcosmic daily lives shift? Would people still drive, its just that engines would be retrofitted so there would be no emissions and the car shells would be from repurposed scrap metal? Would there be no mining for our electronics, or would all of the mining be magically “greened?” (what is green mining I wonder?) Solar panels, wind turbines, all of these green energy systems still require carbon emissions, ecologically destructive production processes, and constant upkeep, hence my skepticism that we can keep civilization as such while somehow tinkering with the infrastructure to eliminate emissions altogether. Hence my critique of greenwashing civilization to preserve the privilege and convenience we have grown to value and habituate ourselves to.

    “We can do better, if only we have the will.” The problem of course is (the royal) “we” don’t have the will, because “we” benefit from the conveniences that modern society violently provides. One can be critical of noble savage myths and nature/society dichotomies while still advocating indigenous lifeways as examples of sustainable egalitarian models. There may have never been a society that did not have an impact on its surrounding ecology, but there is a difference in terms of the kind and degree of impact there is. The effect of civilization is a particular type and degree, vastly different from indigenous hunter-gatherer groups’ effect. My thesis here is simply that that effect is determined by the infrastructure itself, the technology and economic mode by which energy flows are transmuted into culture. When it comes to regenerative and life-enhancing roles of humans, unlike Bookchin’s social ecology, there are real-world models that actually exist, so it seems to me these should be the models to start from, rather than pin our hopes on a utopian ideal that may not work out in practice. When it comes to driving extinction, including our own, it seems to me that this is a question of carrying capacity, and the infrastructure and demographic shifts that drive us to overshoot these limits, which in turn lead to collapse, draw down, and die-off.

    Btw does Bookchin propose a pathway to get us to liberarian municipalism beyond civic engagement? It seems he pins his hopes on “direct face-to-face assemblies” as the mechanism to formulate public policy. Holy shit, what a nightmare lol, especially if their ethics have do not value complementarily and solidarity! To end, I find a bioregional federation of eco-cities, watershed councils, continent congresses, etc. to be a wonderful ideal to strive for. However, that is a long-term goal that I don’t think can be achieved before civilization-prompted die-off begins, so an immediate rethinking of relations in the present moment should begin to initiate that process. Rent strikes, mortgage strikes, general strikes, bill strikes, victory gardens, restoration projects, land defense, etc. all are necessary to begin an insurgency and bricolage politic that allows for such an ideal to emerge where it was once crowded out.

    My favorite line by Dostoyevsky came from The Idiot: “the world will be saved by beauty.” I certainly agree. But that requires understanding whether what we once thought beautiful is contingent on anti-beauty which is too ugly to see, and so we sweep it under the rug. This is the case with long complex supply lines. We see the shining product, that the filth and blood and tears it depended on for its shine. Ensuring we remain aware of this shadow aspect is simply all I tried to point out.

  6. I think you are performing an unfortunate reduction and misunderstanding here in saying that “Marx locates value in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity”: this is not Marx’s theory of value in some general anthropological or ontological sense, but his description of how the value-form of the commodity functions within capitalism. That is to say, it is only a definition of “value” within a historically specific social form. (It is a somewhat confusing and perhaps unfortunate choice on Marx’s part to write in Capital about “value” when he specifically means this capitalist social form, but that is what he means; more specific terms like “use value” or “material wealth” are what signify wider notions of value). Many—including the so-called Marxists—have neglected the basis of Capital in the study of form-determination—or as David Graeber put it, “a series of detailed symbolic analyses”. Marx’s whole critique of political economists is on the basis of their neglect of this social form-determination, the fetishism that takes commodities as merely natural, automatic, forms—but, even more specifically, their inability to recognize the reification or misplaced concreteness occurring within capitalist social forms causing exactly this fetishistic appearance.

    This miscomprehension of Marx not only in general but specifically among Whiteheadians is a very unfortunate setback, because what Marx was attempting to do in Capital was examine how “misplaced concreteness” exists in capitalist society not only as a cognitive error but as an objective, material structuring of our lives. To quote Diane Elson (from her important article “The Value Theory of Labor”): “capitalist social relations … are characterised by the dominance of the abstract aspect over other aspects of labour.” The abstract aspect exactly IS this notion of “the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity”: the labor-time embodied in commodities is not the concrete time of the work as it could be measured either by a clock or experienced but instead the abstract, homogeneous labor that becomes represented in the commodity through the process of exchange and is measured by money. To further quote Elson: “abstract labour comes to have a ‘practical truth’ because the unity of human labour, its differentiation simply in terms of quantity of labour, is not simply recognised in a mental process, but has a correlate in a real social process, that goes on quite independently of how we reason about it.” The idea of value as being located “in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity” IS a reductive, confining, and ultimately violent idea: but it is how our society actually works (or, at least, that is Marx’s theory of how it works). Communism would be the abolition of this value-form and thereby an abolition of the domination of misplaced concreteness.

    This is not to say Marx wasn’t mostly a humanist with a limited sense for wider ontological problems when he is mined for such theories. But his mature theory in Capital is not reduced to just this in its sociological insight. Capital and Process and Reality are quite harmonious in their ultimate aims: the former sets out to describe how commodification causes the domination of an abstraction over our concrete lives, and the latter sets out to fully explore what this concrete life really is.

    I would recommend looking into Michael Heinrich’s Introduction, the Endnotes article on value-form theory and communization, and the Elson article I cited above. In fact, if you can read German there is a whole scholarly world—the “Neue Marx Lektüre”—to explore along these lines.

    1. Thanks for these important corrections. I appreciate the point about Marx’s definition of value being historically specific to capitalism. Thanks also for the reading recommendations. Are you familiar with Anne Pomeroy’s Whiteheadian reading of Marx?

      1. Yes–been a bit since I read it, but I think Pomeroy and I have the same overall general conclusions about how Marx and Whitehead harmonize, how misplaced concreteness is performed as the basis of our social structure and how the Whiteheadian critique of abstractions needs to extend to the critique of these material social forms. I think I would place more emphasis on fetishism than she did in interpreting Capital. I’ll have to admit that my grasp of Marx came less from her explication and more from later reading the kinds of writers I mentioned above (well, and reading Marx himself…); I’ll have to return to her book at some point now with a better understanding of Marx under my belt.

        It’s unfortunate that while Whitehead’s star rose a bit in the past decade the “OOO” types came into prominence and often defined people’s consciousness of “speculative philosophy” since they more often than not were attempting to detach ontology from the critique of social forms and in fact were pretty blunt crystallizations of fetishism (which especially w/ Meillassoux and Brassier had the analytical service of showing how clearly the problems of fetishism and nihilism coincide)–when Whitehead himself explicitly approached his speculative philosophy through the critical (and then, of course, more than critical) examination of social forms of interpretation (hell, there’s even a case to be made that he has a more semiotic-based philosophy than Peirce, whose own semiotic has logically prior to it a phenomenology supposedly only based on logical-mathematical forms). But then that’s its own bag of worms.

    2. Marx: “The labour process, . . . in its simple and abstract elements, is purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (C, I, 290)

      The Whiteheadian critique I am making has more to do with the way Marx universalizes the “man vs nature” dichotomy, placing purposeful activity on one side only. This, too, is a historically contingent formation, is it not?

      1. Yes, I think it’s fair to criticize Marx for his humanism in that way. Certainly later Marxists can be criticized for it: Lukacs’s work on reification, in replacing Hegel’s world-soul as subject of history with humanity as somehow uniquely capable of being agents, runs into incoherence in its ultimate implications and doesn’t really reach a solution in how to understand the subject-object process in a nonreified way (though actually I wonder if Lukacs wasn’t trying to slide some kind of panpsychist objective idealism underneath there, since Lenin himself was basically arguing for a variety of panpsychism in his own writings, albeit not a very sophisticated variety…). On the other side, the “anti-humanist” Marxists often are even worse in simply disregarding understanding the historical mediation of social structures by intentional subjects. So here I’m on your side of the party lines, so to speak.

        My only major point of contention is just that Marx’s mature value theory shouldn’t be reduced to that humanism, and that it overall aligns pretty well with Whitehead’s philosophy.

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