Land art, labor art, capital art, and settler colonialism

Late capitalism’s production of cultural objects involves commodities making other commodities whether as art installation in an urban art gallery or as the remote desert site documented by photography, made now entrepreneurial for tourism as well as confounding the public policy for nuclear waste. Such land art as accumulative representation is of a long term Minsky cycle in extreme space and time fixing some variables close to zero value. Even appearing as a static store of value, capital circulates in deeper circuits that resemble a surface or territory for the value-form.

Land: “Natural resources in short supply occupy a position equivalent to non-basics. As such, taxing them
will not impact prices nor the rate of profit (but only their owner). In fact, the complications of the joint
production arise as soon as one commodity is produced by more than one method.”

The formation of investment capital as skyscraper development or the “turd in the plaza” of monumental sculpture in its setback public space is always a cultural product whether it refers to the contradiction of the experienced environments or the anomalous obstruction to the experience of the small urban space. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc represents the acme of the urban conflict among site-specific artwork, public money for such artwork, and a capitalist legal system.

Tilted Arc was stored in three sections stacked in a government parking lot in Brooklyn upon removal from the plaza. In 1999, they were moved to a storage space in Maryland.[17] Although the physical component of the work is safe in storage, it will likely never again be erected since it is Serra’s wish that it will never be displayed anywhere other than its original location.[18] Richard Serra has stated that the case exemplifies the U.S. legal system’s preference towards capitalistic property rights over democratic freedom of expression.[19]…

In the 1970-80s “Earth Art” and large scale sculpture became prominent and even environmentally performative and in the 21st Century now have become intersectionally problematic in their confrontation with the dominant mode of production. As an idealist contrast, such artworks have become elegiac with the death of Robert Smithson while doing aerial surveying for his final piece Amarillo Ramp.

On July 20, 1973, Smithson, a photographer and the pilot died in a light aircraft crash while inspecting the site of Amarillo Ramp on the ranch of Stanley Marsh 3 near Amarillo, Texas in a Beechcraft Baron E55; the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to the pilot’s failure to maintain airspeed, with distraction being a contributing factor.[31][32][33] The work was subsequently completed by Smithson’s widow Nancy HoltRichard Serra and Tony Shafrazi. It was originally built to rise from a shallow artificial lake, but the lake later dried up, and the earthwork has become overgrown and eroded.[32][34]…

For example Walter DeMaria’s artworks like Lightning Field exist primarily not as actual phenomenological experiences but as imaginary hypotheses triggered by media like photographic documents, among other materials including a full page image in Rolling Stone magazine.

This artwork is not as environmentally intrusive as work by Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson, but is representative of a “movement” whose cultural production is synonymous with the financialization of artworks in late capitalism whether stored in freeports or remotely located in deserts, whose iconology s networked among galleries, museums, mass media and the ecotourism site itself.

The spectacle of artworks and their audience is a mediated set of public relations that resembles the mass scale mystification of social relations and is no different an ideological narrative than election denialism. The artistic myth of genius becomes easier with a culture industry devoted to its financialization at the scale of the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, or the Disneyfication of everything.

The Lightning Field (1977) is a land art work in Catron County, New Mexico, by sculptor Walter De Maria. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile × 1 kilometre grid array. It is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation as one of 11 locations and sites they manage.

Walter De Maria – The Lightning Field, 1977, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometer grid array, Catron County, New Mexico…

The Lightning Field (1977), by the American sculptor Walter De Maria, is a work of Land Art situated in a remote area of the high desert of western New Mexico. It is comprised of 400 polished stainless-steel poles installed in a grid array measuring one mile by one kilometer. The poles—two inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet, 7½ inches in height—are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid, pointed tips that define a horizontal plane. A sculpture to be walked in as well as viewed, The Lightning Field is intended to be experienced over an extended period of time. A full experience of The Lightning Field does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning, and visitors are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the field, especially during sunset and sunrise. In order to provide this opportunity, Dia offers overnight visits during the months of May through October.

Commissioned and maintained by Dia Art Foundation, The Lightning Field exemplifies Dia’s commitment to supporting art projects whose nature and scale exceed the limits normally available within the traditional museum or gallery.…

Real estate values, like property values are the actual product for De Maria’s artwork called Broken Kilometer  allowing the gallery site and building to be subsidized in a cultural district as well as appreciated financially as a prized location. In that instance it is purely about uninhabited and even rarely visited rents no different than condominiums as investment and in the case of Trump and Kushner, vehicles for the social and political capital of citizenship.

The Broken Kilometer will close on June 19, 2022, for conservation work, and will reopen in fall 2022. The Broken Kilometer (1979), located at 393 West Broadway in New York City, is composed of 500 highly polished, round, solid brass rods, each measuring two meters in length and five centimeters (two inches) in diameter.…

Plains of Nazca

The historical narrative arc from large scale monuments like the Plains of Nazca to such recent artwork is mediated not simply as academic and institutional artworld activity sometimes referred to as “conceptual art”. The contradictory problems arise in the status conferral as “monumental” cultural products worthy of preservation and conservation not to mention their amplification as even detached from their authenticity.

In the case of Michael Heizer or James Turrell, the environmental artwork site enters the market for ecotourism, while also serving as an object for cultural critique in the 21st Century as an intersectional transgressor on indigenous peoples’ land.

Michael Heizer, City, 1970–2022

Indeed, City was built on Western Shoshone land, says Alicia Harris, an Assiniboine professor of Native American art history at the University of Oklahoma. In 2020, she submitted a PhD dissertation entitled “Homescapes: Indigenous Land Art and Public Memory,” in which she argued that works by the likes of Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter de Maria — despite being cast as trenchant critiques of the commoditization of galleries and the New York-centered art world in the ’70s — reaffirm the structure of settler colonialism. “Land art made by settlers can’t function as a wholesale rejection of capitalism and the market economy, because the land used to create those works was still considered ‘property,’” she wrote.

Recalling the first time she saw the site on which Michael Heizer’s City would eventually be built in 1973, the artist’s ex-wife Barbara Heizer said that there was “nothing there but me, Michael, a few survey markers and a lot of wind.” Her words reflected an essential truth about the project that Heizer repeated at the time: that there was no reason why he had chosen to create the work in this high desert stretch, located about three hours northwest of Las Vegas, other than the important fact that land there happened to be abundant and cheap. City would be built on land acquired with a loan from the late dealer Virginia Dwan, and at least at the inception of Heizer’s undertaking, it was a work completely divorced from its surroundings. Around the time Heizer landed on the Garden Valley plot on which he would live and labor for the next five decades, he had his eye on real estate in six western states, purchasing “remote land as raw material.” (Later, he would repeat about the Nevada and the Great Basin region from which he hails, “This land is in my blood.”)

Nothingness haunts Michael Heizer, White land artists of his generation, and City — his one-and-a-half-mile-long by half-a-mile-wide magnum opus in Garden Valley, Nevada, which officially opened to visitors earlier this month. The colossal structure, a labyrinth of mounds and pyramids, took half a century to construct, an arduous process set into motion by the artist when he was just 27. Despite much enthusiasm in the press over its recent unveiling, City has been seen by only a select few. Heizer was notoriously secretive while creating it, and only six people per day have been allowed to go since its opening. (Regular tickets are $150 and $100 for students and free for residents of Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties. All slots through the end of the year have been booked.) Yet, the work has already become wrapped up in a sort of mythological lore that portrays it as a miracle amidst desiccated nothingness — a characterization that some Indigenous artists and thinkers more attuned to the historical processes of settler colonialism take issue with.…

Michael Heizer, City, 1970–2022
Michael Heizer, City, 1970–2022
Michael Heizer, City, 1970–2022
Michael Heizer, City, 1970–2022

Michael Heizer’s monumental work on City began in 1972 in Garden Valley, Nevada—which lies almost directly north of the quiet community of Alamo to the tune of about 60 miles. City, by Michael Heizer, is out in the middle of Nevada’s mighty Great Basin—with Wayne E. Kirch Wildlife Management Area to the north, and the Mt. Irish Wilderness to the south. Other than that, it’s wide open in this part of the state and falls within the boundary of Basin and Range National Monument

Despite having worked on this large-scale land art project for nearly 50 years, his work here manages to continue to this day. Like his work at Double Negative, Michael Heizer’s City is designed on a massive scale, spanning a little more than a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, with some parts of the sculpture standing as tall as 80 feet high. Made from dirt, sand, rocks, and concrete, City was formed in five phases, each containing its own substructures within.

Over nearly 50 years City has cost nearly 25 million dollars to build, funded mainly through the Dia Art Foundation and Lannan Foundation. Though City is surrounded by state and federally-owned land, the chunk of land City is situated on is privately owned by Heizer.

The Triple Aught Foundation has created a $30 million endowment to care for City in perpetuity, and moving forward; it will be overseen by a coalition of major art institutions, including Glenstone MuseumCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the New York Museum of Modern Art.

City Michael Heizer Tickets

A magnificent land art installation more than a half-century in the making, City will open September 2022. Because Heizer fears crowds will dilute the experience, six tickets will be offered per day, and only on some days during certain times of the year. Tickets are $150 per person and will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Once visitors arrive in Alamo, NV, they’ll be picked up and allowed to explore City for a few hours, then driven back before dark.

Editor’s Note: The 2022 season has sold out and closed, but please consider applying for tickets beginning Jan 2, 2023. In your query, please include the number of guests in your party (up to 6 people), a preferred reservation date between May 16th and November 9th, 2023, and several alternative reservation dates. Reservations are handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Please note that reservations should not be considered final until you receive confirmation via email.…

It remains to be seen or experienced what an actual cultural revolution’s avant-garde vision of a post-revolutionary city can be when the colonizing forces of reaction and revisionism reign, even held in sharp contrast.

Suprematist city Nikolai Suetin Drawings and illustrations, 1931, 49.4×50 cm…

In their paper, Filip Buekens and J. P. Smit have focused on the theoretical problems that existing definitions of art institutions, such as those proposed by George Dickie and Arthur Danto entail, primarily since their “account[s] of what confers upon objects their institutional character does not fit well with current work on institutions and social ontology” (53). Thus, as these researchers highlight, the “[i]nstitutional accounts of art, although less popular now than in the 1970’s that were the heydays of social constructionism, seem increasingly less plausible once one begins to apply insights from contemporary accounts of social institutions as they are studied in the emerging field of social ontology (Searle 1995, 2010; Tuomela 2013; Epstein 2015; Guala 2016) and in economics (Pratten 2015)” (53).

Nevertheless, Buekens and Smit also argue that, “[w]hile institutional accounts of art may be less popular today (but see Fokt 2013, 2017 for an interesting overview of recent developments and the many meanings of the concept of artworld), some important lessons can be drawn from the way it connected a human practice, the objects produced and the process whereby the products were created” (56). This is related to the growing recognition that “institutions are systems of interconnected rules that direct and shape preferences of participating agents in achieving shared goals – goals that exist independently of the kind of coordination required to achieve the goals” (58). Therefore, as this study explores, “[i]nstitutions, as ingredients or constituents of the artworld, solve obvious or subtle coordination problems” (59).


Consequently, as Buekens and Smit propose, “[i]t remains an open question whether the concept of artworld was more than a fancy signifier, which obscured rather than illuminated the important and genuine institutional dimension of art and artistic activity” (65).…

Socially necessary, cultural labor has abstract and concrete time and labor-power. It may be constructed as both a solitary, artisanal quest and the production of highly mediated surplus value remain contestable in the commodity system of late capitalism.

In an artworld, the aesthetic division of labor is no different in the formation of cultural capital. Digital technology has yet to alter those material contradictions especially as artwork seeks new financialized forms like the NFT.

It’s better to destroy than create what’s unnecessary. Jean Rougeul in 8 ½.

Roden Crater, located in the Painted Desert region of Northern Arizona, is an unprecedented large-scale artwork created within a volcanic cinder cone by light and space artist James Turrell. Representing the culmination of the artist’s lifelong research in the field of human visual and psychological perception, Roden Crater is a controlled environment for the experiencing and contemplation of light. It takes its place within the tradition of American landscape art that began in the 1960s, requiring a journey to visit the work in the remote desert with truly dark night skies. While minimally invasive to the external natural landscape, internally the red and black cinder has been transformed into special engineered spaces where the cycles of geologic and celestial time can be directly experienced. It will constitute a truly culminating phenomenon in world art.

Turrell’s immersive work with how we see light in varying contexts, both natural and created, led him to conceive an artwork so remote from manmade distractions, and at a high altitude so naturally conducive to unlimited sightlines of the vast sky, that it could provide a singular experience. After an extensive search, he found his ideal conditions at Roden Crater. Since acquiring the dormant cinder cone in 1977, Turrell has fashioned Roden Crater into a site containing tunnels and apertures that open onto pristine skies, capturing light directly from the sun in daylight hours, and the planets and stars at night. Indeed it is more akin to the communally developed sites of ancient Incas, than to the conceptions of any individual one can think of in modern times.

Roden Crater is a gateway to the contemplation of light, time and landscape. It is the magnum opus of James Turrell’s career, a work that, besides being a monument to land art, functions as a naked eye observatory of earthly and celestial events that are both predictable and continually in flux. Constructed to last for centuries to come, Roden Crater links the physical and the ephemeral, the objective with the subjective, in a transformative sensory experience.

The first major phase of construction included the movement of over 1.3 million cubic yards of earth to shape the Crater Bowl and the construction of the 854′ East Tunnel. Six spaces were completed, including two of the most difficult, the shaping of the Crater Bowl and the Alpha (East) Tunnel. The Sun & Moon Chamber, East Portal, and the Crater’s Eye, are joined by the Alpha (East) Tunnel and a connecting tunnel to the Crater Bowl. When complete, the project will contain 24 viewing spaces and six tunnels.

As construction on Roden Crater is ongoing, it is presently closed to the public. Fundraising is underway to complete the construction and open Roden Crater to the public. Please consider supporting the work’s completion by becoming a Friend of Roden Crater.…

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Theories of Surplus-Value is/is not [Volume IV of Capital]

(Heinrich 2021)

A P P E N D I X 1

Marx’s Critical Economic Writings

Of the three “theoretical” books of Capital that Marx planned to write, he was only able to finish the first one, dealing with the production process of capital.
The other two books, on the circulation process and the process as a whole, remained unfinished. Frederick Engels published them after Marx’s death.
There is not even a manuscript for the fourth book that Marx planned to write, which was supposed to deal with the history of political economy. Theories of Surplus Value, published in the German MEW volumes 26.1–3 with the subtitle “The 4th Volume of Capital” is not a draft for the fourth book. Instead, it is an unfinished history of just one category.

Without indulging Freud’s various positions on not finishing things, Marx’s aporia can be addressed in a variety of ways without presuming the totalizing project of Capital’s completion. It is more than “one category” among many but about the problematic of categories.

Category theory has come to occupy a central position in contemporary mathematics and theoretical computer science, and is also applied to mathematical physics. Roughly, it is a general mathematical theory of structures and of systems of structures. As category theory is still evolving, its functions are correspondingly developing, expanding and multiplying. At minimum, it is a powerful language, or conceptual framework, allowing us to see the universal components of a family of structures of a given kind, and how structures of different kinds are interrelated. Category theory is both an interesting object of philosophical study, and a potentially powerful formal tool for philosophical investigations of concepts such as space, system, and even truth. It can be applied to the study of logical systems in which case category theory is called “categorical doctrines” at the syntactic, proof-theoretic, and semantic levels. Category theory even leads to a different theoretical conception of set and, as such, to a possible alternative to the standard set theoretical foundation for mathematics. As such, it raises many issues about mathematical ontology and epistemology. Category theory thus affords philosophers and logicians much to use and reflect upon.

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Friday essay: could a reinterpreted Marxism have solutions to our unprecedented environmental crisis?

Bärbel Miemietz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Jeff Sparrow, The University of Melbourne

In 2021, Kohei Saito’s Capital in the Anthropocene became a publishing sensation in Japan, eventually selling more than half a million copies.

That astonishing achievement becomes even more extraordinary when one considers that Saito, an academic at the University of Tokyo, has for some years been rearticulating materialist philosophy based on a close reading of Karl Marx’s unpublished manuscripts – not exactly the kind of enterprise that traditionally results in bestsellers.

Though Capital in the Anthropocene remains (somewhat oddly) untranslated, English-speaking readers can now access Saito’s subsequent work, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism.

In his new book, Saito notes the awful ironies of the current period, in which, instead of the promised “end of history”, we face the (rather different) end of human history, as the conquest of nature transforms dialectically into nature’s apocalyptic return in the form of fires, floods and other disasters.

The social crises associated with the environmental emergency have not, as yet, spurred the Marxist revival one might expect from an era of political and economic tumult. Saito blames this on the longstanding association between socialism and the Promethean notion that nature can and should serve as raw materials for human ends.

Think of the Communist Manifesto and its giddy zeal for the transformative program of the bourgeoisie: “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation …”.

The young Marx’s enthusiasm for solids melting into air sounds rather different with the environment collapsing all around us.


In Marx and the Anthropocene, Saito continues the project developed in his earlier book, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, in which he delved deeply into Marx and Engels’ vast corpus of unpublished work to explain their engagement with environmental issues.

At first glance, a painstaking analysis of Marx’s private notes on, say, soil chemistry might seem arcane or even cultish: a doomed attempt at quote-mining to refashion a 19th century thinker according to contemporary tastes.

Yet Marx never completed the broader project of which Capital was merely one facet. The systemised “Marxism” we take for granted was a later reconstruction based on uncompleted manuscripts. The ongoing efforts of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (or MEGA) to compile every available text thus provides Saito with a new basis on which to analyse fundamental concepts of the late Marx.

Saito focuses, in particular, on an argument presented in Capital but, until recently, ignored by most readers. That is, Marx treats labour as a metabolic relationship between people and nature. Human beings, in any society, must reshape – through labour – the natural world if they are to survive. Yet the way they do that varies tremendously from society to society.

Prior to capitalism, labour was (as you would expect) overwhelmingly directed to the immediate satisfaction of specific needs. Even in the most oppressive ancient societies, slaves created use values. They toiled to make goods and provide services their rulers actually wanted.

Capitalism mandates something very different. In a society governed by the commodity, production takes place primarily for exchange. Today, we sell our labour power to others, who then direct us. Unlike the pharaohs of old, our bosses don’t themselves want what we make or do. The capitalists who employ us seek, first and foremost, value, which can expand without any definite limit because it is quantitative rather than qualitative.

Saito argues that commodification – of labour and everything else – fundamentally changes the human relationship with nature. When value becomes “the organising principle of metabolism between humans and nature, it cannot fully reflect the complexity of the biophysical metabolic processes between them”.

Our direct and immediate interaction with the natural world, in other words, becomes a process driven by an external, expansionary dynamic.

Metabolic rift

Marx describes the disruption of nature by the circuit of capital as a “metabolic rift”.

For Saito, this concept entails “spatial rifts” between the cities and the country, and between developed and developing nations. It also entails “temporal rifts” between the deep time of geological processes and the ever-increasing tempo of capitalist production.

The notion of a “metabolic rift” thus makes manifest an environmental theory that is latent in Capital. Saito’s extraordinary erudition teases out the implication of concepts sometimes present in Marx’s work only in embryonic form.

Of course, everyone knows that corporations ravage the environment. The theory of metabolic rift explains that despoliation not as a result of the greed or ineptitude of individual entrepreneurs, but as a consequence of the commodity itself. It suggests that the fundamental interdependence between humans and nature is disturbed at the most granular level of capitalism.

The consequences cannot be overstated. Mainstream responses to climate change – the strategies advocated by most governments and by international gatherings (the Conference of the Parties, for example) – centre on market mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes. Many progressives criticise such interventions as too little, too late. On Saito’s reading, their critique misses the point. Carbon trading and similar schemes, such as Australia’s new biodiversity market, seek the further commodification of nature. They are not merely insufficient; they are actively worsening the problem they claim to remedy.


Even more importantly, rift theory provides the basis for what Saito calls “ecosocialism”.

Historically, attempts to unite proletarians with the planet have tended to rely on moral appeals to workers on behalf of the natural world. This non-materialist strategy has invariably failed.

Saito suggests a very different approach. He emphasises that Marx sees the alienation of land and labour as different facets of the same phenomenon. The systematic ruination of nature arises from an equally thoroughgoing degradation of basic human activity. The fight to save the environment thus becomes, not an optional extra, but a cause fundamentally entwined with class struggle.

Rosa Luxemburg (1905). Public domain.

In his new book, Saito buttresses his argument by identifying various thinkers within the broader Marxist tradition who, more or less independently, grasped a similar notion of metabolism. These include Rosa Luxemburg (in her book The Accumulation of Capital), Georg Lukacs (particularly in his rediscovered 1925 manuscript A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic), the Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros, and contemporary writers like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett.

Saito also defends the nature-society dualism on which rift theory rests against rival Marxist approaches. He polemicises, in particular, against Neil Smith and Jason Moore.

But by far the most important – and challenging – sections of Marx in the Anthropocene involve textual exegesis. Biographers sometimes describe Marx’s final years as unproductive, marred by illness and lack of focus. Saito argues that, from the late 1860s, Marx threw himself into a renewed study of the natural sciences in order to work through the implications of labour as metabolism and, in the process, revised several key concepts.

Forces and relations of production

Saito revisits, in particular, the traditional opposition between the forces of production – a term that includes the means of production, labour power, machinery, and much else – and the relations of production – that is, the economic ownership of those forces.

This antagonism is conventionally understood as the motor of social history. 20th century Marxists, in particular, presented the productive forces as the basis of a new society, often focusing on the technological advances facilitated by capitalism as central to the transition to socialism.

The first Japanese edition Capital in the Anthropocene.

Saito claims that the later Marx saw the real (rather than formal) subsumption of labour under capital as dependant on a reorganisation of workers’ activities. Capital, writes Saito, “creates qualitatively new productive forces and a uniquely capitalist way of production sui generis”.

According to Saito, Marx rejected the idea – associated with official Soviet “Marxism” – that socialists could simply take over the forces of production. Rather, Marx concluded that the relations of production shaped productive forces in ways that could not and should not be considered progressive.

For example, the factory system generates tremendous productivity by bringing workers together. But the “co-operation” of the assembly line relies on individual workers performing repetitive actions, with management solely responsible for decisions about what they do and how.

This kind of tailored productivity does not provide the basis for collective self-management. On the contrary, democratic and collective control of the means of production – the basis of Marxian socialism – necessitates a proletarian autonomy that is incompatible with the management techniques enforced in, say, an Amazon factory.

That means progressives should not enthuse about productivity in the manner of some so-called “ecomodernists”. We can’t create a “fully-automated luxury communism” simply by freeing advanced technology from the tech-bros who currently control it.

The non-alienated labour required for environmental sustainability and workers’ self-management requires a qualitative break with capitalist forces of production.

Degrowth communism

On that basis, Saito challenges the linear narrative associated with mechanical Marxism, which proposes that societies must transition from feudalism to capitalism, and then from capitalism to socialism.

He focuses on Marx’s famous correspondence with the Russian populist Vera Zasulich, who asked whether communes in which peasants traditionally managed their affairs must inexorably give way to Western-style capitalism. In his (very brief) published response, Marx denied any inevitability about developments in Russia. In an unsent draft, however, he argued explicitly that capitalism

will end through its own elimination, through the return of modern societies to a higher form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production.

Saito chases down an array of notes, jottings and other writings in which Marx muses on precisely how pre- and post-capitalist relations might intersect. He shows that Marx, by the end of his life, had broken from any notion of a new society based on the expansion of productive forces. Marx had instead come to advocate what Saito calls “degrowth communism”.

It’s a remarkable conclusion. Saito writes:

Marx’s call for a “return” to non-capitalist society demands that any serious attempt at overcoming capitalism in Western society needs to learn from non-Western societies and integrate the new principle of a steady-state economy. Marx’s rejection of productivism is not identical with the romantic advocation of a “return to the countryside”. In fact, he repeatedly added that the Russian communes would have to assimilate the positive fruits of capitalist development and the principle of steady-state economy in non-Western societies that would allow Western societies to leap to communism as a higher stage of the archaic communes.

Saito acknowledges that this vision is “utterly different from the productivist approach of traditional Marxism in the 20th century”. And the passages he relies on are fragmentary, even cryptic – much more so than the texts from which metabolic rift theory arises.

In some ways, though, that’s not really the point. The debate among Marxist scholars about the extent to which the MEGA provides textual support for such a conclusion matters much less than whether Saito’s thesis holds conceptually. We might even say that Saito’s insistence on grounding his book in Marx’s writing obscures his own considerable status as a theoretician who is creatively extending Marxism for a new period.

I have seen the past – and it works!

Today, a thoroughgoing pessimism pervades both mainstream and radical politics. Few people believe in their own power to shape events. Many accept misanthropic or Malthusian environmental currents that regard humanity as an innately destructive force.

Saito provides a much needed alternative – a demonstration of alternative possibilities. His project might be understood as an inversion of Lincoln Steffen’s famous slogan, along the lines of “I have seen the past – and it works!”

Australians, in particular, should be aware of how pre-class societies developed ways to live more or less sustainably in their environment. As I have argued in Overland and elsewhere, the living culture of Indigenous Australia proves that human beings are not hardwired (as we are often told) to destroy the natural world.

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal people laboured on the continent in ways that fostered, rather than diminished, the country that they tended. The introduction of capitalism to the country thus provides a remarkable illustration of the metabolic rift. In the space of a few years, agricultural capitalism wiped out landscapes created by untold generations of Indigenous people. Many settlers recorded their astonishment and dismay as the country, deprived of its traditional custodians, changed under their feet.

Saito’s argument is not, of course, that the society that existed prior to 1788 should or could be revived. “The critique of productive forces of capital,” he says, “is not equivalent to a rejection of all technologies.” The scientific achievements of the capitalist allow, in Marx’s terms, “the associated producers [to] govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way”.

The last known photograph of Karl Marx (1882). Public domain.

Saito describes the resulting society in terms of “degrowth”. In some ways, it is an infelicitous term. As a political slogan, “degrowth” invokes the much-hated austerity associated with neoliberal economics. It also sounds too much like the bourgeois environmentalism that is expressed through calls for individual sacrifice.

Even more importantly, it obscures Saito’s theoretical distinction between capitalism, on one hand, and ancient societies and communism on the other. “Growth” does not provide a meaningful measure for a use-value society. Communism would, for instance, prioritise healthcare, but the success or failure of its efforts would be assessed according to patient welfare, rather than the expansion or contraction of GDP.

Elsewhere, Saito borrows from Kirstin Ross the phrase “communal luxury”, a term that better captures the meaning of unalienated labour. In the early years of white conquest, Indigenous people flatly refused to work for Europeans. They considered wage labour – an activity that stripped all meaning, control and spirituality from daily life – the most profound impoverishment imaginable.

A society based on use values might harbour the resources that capitalism squanders, but that would not amount to austerity. “Abundance,” says Saito, “is not a technological threshold but a social relationship.”

A radical theory for the 21st century

Saito’s deep knowledge of Marx’s published and unpublished writing makes for a rigorous argument, but it also presents socialism almost exclusively in terms of the development of ideas. That is misleading.

The crude productivism of so much 20th century socialist writing stemmed less from Engels’ misreading of Marx’s notes on science (a topic Saito addresses in detail) than from the Soviet Union’s repurposing of Marxism as a justification for state-directed capitalist development.

The Marx-Zasulich letters prefigured the much more concrete debate about feudalism, capitalism and socialism that ensued after 1917. In some respects, Saito’s argument resonates with Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, which provided an account of how undeveloped countries might build a workers’ state by spreading the revolutionary process to the imperialist heartland.

Trotsky’s argument centres on the role of the proletariat, but Saito does not really address how “degrowth communism” might come about. In that respect, the intellectual rigour of Marx in the Anthropocene fosters a certain weakness. Saito sounds occasionally as if he thinks a correct restatement of fundamentals will, in and of itself, repopularise Marxism. Obviously, that is not the case. We cannot rely on MEGA to make socialism great again.

Marx in the Anthropocene is nevertheless a tremendously important achievement: an imaginative re-purposing of radical theory for the 21st century. Too often environmental debates centre only on the most immediate proposals for curtailing emissions, without addressing how we got into this mess and how we might get out. By contrast, Saito provides both a convincing account of the social forces driving climate change and a description of what an alternative might entail. His book deserves the widest possible readership. Here’s hoping it sells as much as the last one.The Conversation

Jeff Sparrow, Lecturer, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why machines don’t create value (in Cosmonaut magazine)


My article, published in Cosmonaut magazine, explains why human labour, and human labour alone, is the cause of profit.

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Towards a Liberal Critique of Left Neo-Liberalism Policy


Have you ever played that game where everyone tries to keep a balloon in the air as long as possible?

Lots of people are discussing the lack of a political agenda in neoliberalism’s policies based on this post by Doug Henwood: Crooked Timber (III), Will WilkinsonKevin DrumMatt YglesiasThe American Scene, Jacobin (III), Arin DubeBrad Delong, JW Mason/Pitkin with good comments (III), Corey RobinElias IsQuith at LoEG, and I’m sure a ton more.

Most of the posts examine the lack of a unified theory of politics in neoliberalism’s current policy focus. I want to focus on a critique of neoliberalism’s higher-level policy agenda from a liberal point of view. I’m not much of a politics thinker, so I’ll leave it to others to tease out the…

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Structural substitution and the logic of urban modernism

Flowers For Socrates

By ann summers

occupying a space for a time…

Here are some examples of cultural substitution in the built environment that articulate multiple meanings and identify an axis or axes of more than geodetic importance. Every historical site is both monumental and documentary and connected by a visible, invisible and visual logic appropriate to the accumulated cultural production and reproduction in and on those sited places. Their axes are found in the historical logic of spaces as one interprets both a structural replacement/displacement and a substitution/transference of modern power. Every place has not only its sense, but its agency and structure, constructed and deconstructed by its history.

In social terms, a bourgeois space and cosmopolitan society has a new layer of urban order and meaning imposed – with a nationalist ideology and modern state-building – that is not only visual and symbolic, but also real and instrumental.”

Whether facadism or roof-ism,  It…

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Earth art… “Most people wouldn’t know (art) if it came up and bit them on the ass.” – Frank Zappa

Flowers For Socrates

“Most people wouldn’t know music if it came up and bit them on the ass.” – Frank Zappa
By ann summers

This is why I always wanted my own bulldozer…

(2015) Artist Michael Heizer, in the Nevada desert for 43 years, returns to New York City with a pair of $2 million rocks

slide_42_1_.jpgDwan Gallery donated “Double Negative” to the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles, in the eighties, and Heizer hasn’t visited it for years. The degradation there depresses him: its clean, deep cuts have filled with boulders calved from the sides. Though he originally intended the piece to respond to time and ultimately be reclaimed by geologic processes, at some point he changed his mind, and now hopes to find the money to restore it. Govan thinks that this reversal came partly because Smithson championed the principle of entropy, and Heizer wanted nothing to do…

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Badiou, Extension, and Networks

Larval Subjects .

fn3ontoOne of the most attractive, problematic, and astonishing features of Badiou’s ontology is his strictly extensional understanding of sets or multiplicities. A set is not defined by its members sharing a common predicate or quality, nor by the relations among members of the set. Rather, a set is defined strictly by its extension or the members that belong to that set. From the standpoint of 20th Century French and German Continental philosophy, this thesis cannot but be a heresy, for the predominant trend in Continental thought has been a relational conception of entities. Whether we are speaking of language as a diacritical set of negative oppositions as defended by the structuralists and the post-structuralists, or Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where entities, the ready-to-hand, are defined by the relational networks to which they belong, the predominant trend has been to treat beings as bundles of relations such that the entity is nothing apart…

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Histories of commons repeat themselves as tragedy and farce

Flowers For Socrates

By ann summers

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who watches the watchers) Juvenal

Recently, a US rancher with unfortunate racist and fascist tendencies came to the attention of US media with unfortunate consequences but an interesting discourse path. I won’t repeat those issues here except to note that the concerns on which this dispute hinged were issues of common-pool resources. Those are publicly owned assets used by that rancher under a contractual agreement to pay for those property rights to the tune of $1 million.

In this case the rancher refused on anachronistic ideological grounds to pay those fees with the contradictory premise that his citizenship beliefs were historically special and autonomously sovereign and therefore exempt from the obligations to his original contract. The Rancher was first lionized by conservative media as a hero resisting an “overreaching” oppressive federal state by privileging the authority of the local state but at…

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Hello world!

This site will occasionally feature some musings about my current research and include monographs as well as serve to collect the literature related to this topic

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