by McKenzie Wark, Public Semimar: http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/birth-of-thanaticism/#.Uz_OD6KWf5N
I don’t know why we still call it capitalism. It seems to be some
sort of failure or blockage of the poetic function of critical thought.
Even its adherents have no problem calling it capitalism any more.
Its critics seem to be reduced to adding modifiers to it: postfordist,
neoliberal, or the rather charmingly optimistic ‘late’ capitalism. A
bittersweet term, that one, as capitalism seems destined to outlive us
I awoke from a dream with the notion that it might make more sense to
call it thanatism, after Thanatos, son of Nyx (night) and
Erebos (darkness), twin of Hypnos (sleep), as Homer and Hesiod seem more
or less to agree.
I tried thanatism out on twitter, where Jennifer Mills wrote: “yeah, I think we have something more enthusiastically suicidal. Thanaticism?” That seems like a handy word. Thanaticism: like a fanaticism, a
gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death. The slight echo of
Thatcherism is useful also.
Thanaticism: a social order which subordinates the production of
use values to the production of exchange value, to the point that the
production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the conditions of
existence of use value. That might do as a first approximation.
Bill McKibben has suggested that climate scientists should go on strike.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2013 report
recently. It basically says what the last one said, with a bit more
evidence, more detail, and worse projections.
And still nothing much
seems to be happening to stop Thanaticism. Why issue another report? It
is not the science, it’s the political science that’s failed. Or maybe
the political economy.
In the same week, BP quietly signaled their intention to fully
exploit the carbon deposits which it owns the rights. A large part of
the value of the company, after all, is the value of those rights.
not dig or suck or frack carbon out of the ground for fuel would be
suicide for the company, and yet to turn it all into fuel and have that
fuel burned, releasing the carbon into the air, puts the climate into a
truly dangerous zone.
But that can’t stand in the way of the production of exchange value.
Exchange value has to unreel its own inner logic to the end: to mass
extinction. The tail that is capital is wagging the dog that is earth.
Perhaps its no accident that the privatization of space appears on
the horizon as an investment opportunity at just this moment when earth
is going to the dogs.
The ruling class must know it is presiding over
the depletion of the earth. So they are dreaming of space-hotels. They
want to not be touched by this, but to still have excellent views.
It makes perfect sense that in these times agencies like the NSA are
basically spying on everybody. The ruling class must know that they are
the enemies now of our entire species. They are traitors to our species
being. So not surprisingly they are panicky and paranoid. They imagine
we’re all out to get them.
And so the state becomes an agent of generalized surveillance and
armed force for the defense of property. The role of the state is no
longer managing biopower. It cares less and less about the wellbeing of
populations. Life is a threat to capital and has to be treated as such.
The role of the state is not to manage biopower but to manage
thanopower. From whom is the maintenance of life to be withdrawn first?
Which populations should fester and die off? First, those of no use as
labor or consumers, and who have ceased already to be physically and
mentally fit for the armed forces.
Much of these populations can no longer vote. They may shortly lose
food stamps and other biopolitical support regimes. Only those willing
and able to defend death to the death will have a right to live.
And that’s just in the over-developed world. Hundreds of millions now
live in danger of rising seas, desertification and other metabolic
rifts. Everyone knows this: those populations are henceforth to be
treated as expendable.
Everybody knows things can’t go on as they are. Its obvious. Nobody
likes to think about it too much. We all like our distractions. We’ll
all take the click-bait. But really, everybody knows. There’s a good
living to be made in the service of death, however. Any hint of an
excuse for thanaticism as a way of life is heaped with Niagras of
We no longer have public intellectuals; we have public idiots.
Anybody with a story or a ‘game-changing’ idea can have some screen
time, so long as it either deflects attention from thanaticism, or
better - justifies it. Even the best of this era’s public idiots come
off like used car salesmen. It is not a great age for the rhetorical
It is clear that the university as we know it has to go. The
sciences, social sciences and the humanities, each in their own ways,
were dedicated to the struggle for knowledge. But it is hard to avoid
the conclusion, no matter what one’s discipline, that the reigning order
is a kind of thanaticism.
The best traditional knowledge disciplines can do is to focus in
tightly on some small, subsidiary problem, to just avoid the big picture
and look at some detail. That no longer suffices.
Traditional forms of
knowledge production, which focus on minor or subsidiary kinds of
knowledge are still too dangerous. All of them start to discover the
traces of thanaticism at work.
So the university mast be destroyed. In its place, a celebration of
all kinds of non-knowledge. Whole new disciplines are emerging, such as
the inhumanities and the antisocial sciences.
is not the problem of the human or the social. Their object is
thanaticism, its description and justification. We are to identify with,
and celebrate, that which is inimical to life. Such an implausible and
dysfunctional belief system can only succeed by abolishing its rivals.
All of which could be depressing. But depression is a subsidiary
aspect of thanaticism. You are supposed to be depressed, and you are
supposed to think that’s your individual failing or problem.
illusory fantasy-world is ripped away from you, and the thanatic
reality is bared - you are supposed to think its your fault. You have
failed to believe. See a shrink. Take some drugs. Do some retail
Thanaticism also tries to incorporate those who doubt its rule with a
make-over of their critique as new iterations of thatatic production.
Buy a hybrid car! Do the recycling! No, do it properly! Separate that
Again, its reduced to personal virtue and responsibility. Its your
fault that thanaticism wants to destroy the world. Its your fault as a
consumer, and yet you have not choice but to consume.
“We later civilizations … know too that we are mortal,” Valery
said in 1919. At that moment, after the most vicious and useless war
hitherto, such a thing could appear with some clarity. But we lost that
clarity. And so: a modest proposal. Let’s at least name the thing after its primary attribute.
This is the era of the rule of thanaticism: the mode of production of non-life. Wake me when its over.