The Red Critique


Capitalism's Posthuman Empire

Rob Wilkie

The economic tumultuousness of capitalism requires a constant turnover of ideological concepts which, on the one hand, displace the fundamental inequality of private property while, on the other hand, replacing the possibilities of true economic equality with the illusion of the empty equality of the market. While the advancing productivity of human labor means that we are able to foresee a time when the needs of all are met, capitalism restricts these developments to the profit motive. An economic system which divides the working class against itself by forcing workers around the world to compete with one another for the wage, capitalism can’t but foster new social divisions and contestations within the working class while at the same time reducing working class unity to the reified homogeneity of exploitation. It is on these terms that we must understand bourgeois theory’s "posthumanist turn" and the way in which it disconnects the relation between race and class.  I argue that what is represented as posthumanism's "ethical" recognition of difference without closure—the claim to recognize the "solidarity" between humans and animals by resisting the instrumental reduction of both to homogeneous masses—is in actuality a displacement of the more revolutionary critique of capitalism as a global system that must expand the conditions for private accumulation by subsuming all boundaries and differences under the one difference which only a social transformation can bring an end to, namely the difference of class.  

In order to consider the social realities of capital's posthuman empire, however, I believe it is necessary to start outside of it, in what Marx and Engels call the "real ground of history…the material production of life itself" (The German Ideology 164). What I mean by this is that in contrast to Giorgio Agamben's posthumanist declaration in What is an Apparatus? that "what is to be at stake, to be precise, is not an erasure or an overcoming, but rather a dissemination that pushes to the extreme the masquerade that has always accompanied every personal identity" (13), the apparent fluidity of the concept of "identity" and "otherness" in social, philosophic, and scientific discourses over time is governed by what Marx and Engels describe as the "mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development" (The German Ideology 165). In starting outside of epistemology, in the historical and material ontology of social relations, it becomes possible to not only document the fact that theories of "self" and "other" change, but why changes in the meaning of identity reflect the deeper social contestations between classes over the material conditions that shape one's life; namely, the life-activity of human labor.

It is on these terms, for instance, that Hegel's foundational theory of otherness in The Phenomenology of the Mind that underlies virtually all cultural theories of difference today can be understood not as the spontaneous coming to "self-consciousness" of the contingent nature of all identity, but rather as a reflection of the changing economic relations of an emerging industrial capitalism which, in turn, turns these economic relations into the illusion of the natural condition of all "life." According to Hegel, "self-consciousness" occurs when society reaches the point at which it can reflect on itself by understanding that individuals exist relationally, but nonetheless independently. "Self-consciousness," he writes, "exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized'" (561). It is on these terms that Hegel proposes that the dependent nature of human consciousness up to that point—manifest in the relation between lord and bondsman—is only transformed when each recognizes the other as an equal and independent being.

However, by drawing upon what Marx theorizes as the "material conditions of life," it becomes clear that what Hegel represents as "self-consciousness" cannot be understood outside of the historical and material conditions in which his inquiry takes place. That is, in seeking to define the relational basis of the self as other than the dependent relation between the bondsman to the lord (563), Hegel is challenging the "self" as understood under feudal economic relations and, in its place, establishing the ideological framework for the "liberty" of private property relations under capitalism. It is on this basis, for instance, that Marx writes that the form of "liberty as a right of man" which Hegel privileges is "not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man" (On The Jewish Question 42).  In other words, the need to recast humanity as a social relation based upon the "recognition" of equals is driven by the emergence of a society framed around both the contractual meeting of "free" individuals in the marketplace—that is, individuals "freed" from the means of production and thus forced to sell their labor power for a wage—as well as the rethinking of the bourgeois "individual" as having a natural "right" to freely own private property.

To return, then, to the contemporary moment of posthumanism, the reading of identity which has come to dominate cultural theory responds to the globalization of wage-labor by arguing that the primary struggle is no longer between classes, but between the cultural homogenization of the social, on the one hand, and the post-race, post-class, and post-gender multitudes which "resist" through appeals to cultural singularity and local difference, on the other.  Perhaps the most prominent proponents of this thesis are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who, in Commonwealth, argue that although "War, suffering, misery, and exploitation increasingly characterize our globalizing world… [o]ne primary effect of globalization… is the creation of a common world, a world that, for better or worse, we all share, a world that has no 'outside'" (vii). At the core of their thesis is that capitalism is no longer a system divided by class, but rather a system of political domination that, however unevenly, nonetheless impacts and pulls everyone into a struggle over control over definitions of "self." In the new, "common" world, they write, "each identity is divided internally by others: racial hierarchies divide genders and classes, gender hierarchies divide races and classes, and so forth" (340) and "no one domain or social antagonism is prior to the others" (342). In this sense, the struggle for social change is not about ending the conditions of class exploitation that lead to racial and other forms of oppression, but rather expanding the recognition of independent identities such that they can no longer be subsumed under the homogeneity of capitalism's instrumental and reductive logic. In this post-race, post-class, and post-gender world, they declare, recognizing the "Singularity" of the multitudes "destroys the logic of property" (339) and "fills the traditional role of… the abolition of the state" (333).  As such, their proposal is to abandon any hope of fundamental social transformation or alternative to capitalism in favor of "an ethics of democratic political action within and against Empire" (vii).

The problem is that although "globalization" has become synonymous in theory with the end of any economic challenge to capitalism's dominance and the absence of an outside from which to critique exploitation, this does not change the reality that the expansion of capitalism globally has meant in actuality a rising level of inequality and a sharpening of the class divide, a point then reflected back in culture by increasing racial and religious tensions. This is because capitalism is a system that depends upon the exploitation of labor. Regardless of whether the primary location of production is the North or the South, or whether the workers work in factories that are highly mechanized or newly digitalized, it is the production of surplus value extracted from the surplus labor of workers by owners that drives capitalism forward. It is in the context of increasing economic uncertainty and inequality that one must read, for example, the increasing use of institutionalized and "culturally acceptable" racism against Muslims and immigrants in the United States and Europe to divide the working class as an instance of what Marx calls the "secret which enables the capitalist class to maintain its power" ("Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt" 337). In other words, far from the divisions of the past being displaced, as Hardt and Negri propose, class divisions have only become heightened in capital's new global ecology, leading as usual to the divisive cultural promulgation of "internal" cultural divisions within the global proletariat.

It is for this reason, I argue, that the recognition of the singularity of cultural difference as the means by which to address the social oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, animality, and (dis)ability argued for by posthumanists has in actuality become the ideology that in obscuring exploitation enables global capitalism to deepen social inequalities. This is because it strips away the historical and material conditions of difference and, instead, represents the conditions of identity under capitalism, as Cary Wolfe suggests in What is Posthumanism?, as the "ongoing, differentiated construction and creation of a shared environment, sometimes converging in a consensual domain, sometimes not, by autopoetic entities that have their own temporalities, chronicities, perceptual modalities, and so on—in short, their own forms of embodiment" (xxiv). The problem, according to posthumanists such as Wolfe, is the failure of capitalism to recognize that all beings should be allowed to operate "on their own time," instead of being forced to operate under a homogenized "temporality." Capitalism, then, is challenged not as an economic system, but a managerial one. That is, it is said that capital does not do enough to recognize the "differences" which exist at the very core of all being and thus is challenged to further incorporate people (and animals) in their local, embedded realities. This local recognition, the argument goes, will bring the rigid, instrumental logic of capitalism into crisis. However, this image of society as consisting of autonomous, self-identified individuals who sometimes operate together and sometimes not, doesn't challenge the core logic of capitalism in exploitation. In fact, it replicates the very ideology on which capitalism depends, namely the illusion of freedom in the marketplace, where "individuals" encounter each other in a series of chance meetings to exchange—more or less "fairly"—wages for labor. By giving up the possibility of any theory of identity and difference beyond the isolated encounter, posthumanist ethics offers only a politics of individual, autonomous solutions to what is a structural economic contradiction. In turn, it thus serves at the level of culture as the means by which to extend the economic realities of capitalism which in fact give rise to the conditions of oppression posthumanists nominally oppose. Capitalism, especially in its current "global" phase, has no problems recognizing local differences and adapting commodities to local markets. What matters to capital is not the locality of markets, but the globality of labor. 

Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am and Agamben's The Open: Man and Animal are among two of the most influential texts in shaping the discourses of contemporary cultural theory in the ideological direction of "posthumanism." What is significant about both books is that they take as their starting point a rethinking of the entire history of philosophy—from the ancient Greeks to postmodernism—to account for what they claim is the central aporia in Western Philosophy since Aristotle, namely, the discursive relation of "man" and "animal." As Agamben argues, it is the conflict between human and animal, not as they exist, but as they are defined epistemologically, which is "the decisive political conflict, which governs every other conflict" (80). According to both writers, the division between humans and animals operates as the unspoken basis upon which all theories of social difference have been constructed and, in turn, the framework through which all attacks upon the other ultimately depend. The "human" and the "animal" function, they propose, as homogenized epistemological categories through which social reality is produced and maintained. In turn, it is this instrumental logic of classification which is at the core of the human-animal distinction which is then used to legitimate the oppression of all beings—animal and human—which are defined as outside the domain of reason. Just as the oppression of the animal is "legalized" by defining it as the not-human and thus not subject to human rights, they argue the racialized other has been oppressed through the same mechanism of denying that she has the capacity to (Western philosophic) reason. On these terms Agamben writes, "It is as if determining the border between human and animal were not just one question among many discussed by philosophers and theologians, scientists and politicians, but rather a fundamental meta-physico-political operation in which alone something like 'man' can be decided upon and produced" (21). In this way, they subsume and thus shift all inquiries into the conditions which give rise to social oppression to what they claim is the rhetorical structure of humanity itself.

It is on these grounds that Derrida and Agamben propose that the challenge of posthumanism to the contemporary is the deconstruction of the epistemological basis upon which all "differences" are classified. This is perhaps most clear in Derrida's argument that "Power over the animal is the essence of the 'I' or the 'person,' the essence of the human" (93), which can only be combated, he proposes, by "complicating, thickening, folding, and dividing the line [between humans and animals] precisely by making it increase and multiply" (29). Like Agamben, Derrida suggests social inequalities are dependent upon the construction of an interminable and uncrossable boundary between the human and the animal which legitimates the treatment of some beings as less (human) than others. It is this unequal system of classification, he proposes, that is tied into the very structure of all representations and, thus, implicated in how the world is "seen" from the vantage point of all of modern philosophy. He writes, "Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give…in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept" (32). As such, Derrida declares that drawing such a sharp, but arbitrary, boundary between the human and the non-human obscures that, "Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rather than 'The Animal' or 'Animal Life' there is already a heterogeneous multiplicity of the living, or more precisely....a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead […that…] can never be totally objectified" (31). In other words, the classification of "humans" and "animals" into distinct states of being imposes violence on the animal-other which reduces its multiplicity and complexity under a single, homogeneous concept. In turn, it is the multiplicity of the other that ultimately represents a resistance to the homogenization and objectification of modernity. That is, like Hardt and Negri's theory of the multitude who exist in a state of radical singularity which is "constantly in flux" (339) and thus resist any attempts at reductive classifications, what Derrida is ultimately arguing in celebrating the "unsubstitutable singularity" (9) of the in-between identity he calls "l'animot" (41)—that is, a being that is a "monstrous hybrid," neither inside nor outside language—is a politics that takes up the full extent of Hegel's individualist "recognition" as the basis of a posthumanist theory of identity. Far from challenging Hegel's humanist theory of difference and identity, which corresponds to the emergence of the industrial age and the pressures it placed upon feudal class relations, what Derrida is proposing is a theory of "recognition" for the age of global capitalism. It subsumes all identity under a singular cultural logic and, in turn, presumes that there is no escape from this logic, except to find moments of "resistance" from within. In this sense, Derrida's posthumanism is a ruling class ethics which works without recourse to the existence of any economic or political outside to promote the idea of locating the moments within any structure that might lend themselves to a more plural and less determining understanding of identity. It is, in other words, a theory of identity for a capitalist market that must "nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere," while nonetheless continuing to internally divide workers, pitting them against one another through the mechanism of wage competition (Marx and Engels 487).

The implications of the posthumanist reading of difference as displacing the economic realities of race, gender, and sexual oppression as shaped by the fundamental divisions of ownership under capitalism become clear when they are applied to contemporary representations of difference and the ways in which theories of race in particular are being revised as capital goes global. For example, released within months of one another, the films Disgrace and District 9 are exemplary instances of the way in which posthumanist ethics has become the dominant ideological framework through which race and class are disconnected from one another and, more importantly, from the social relations of production. That is to say, what is significant is that despite the surface differences in "tone," "politics," and "audience" both films take the sharp divisions of race and class in post-Apartheid South Africa and, at a time of both rising class conflicts (as well as increased global attention to the 2010 World Cup at the time of their release), use the relay of the relation of human and animal to redefine the social reality in South Africa as a series of ethical challenges rather than class conflicts.

Briefly, Disgrace, the film version of J.M. Coetzee's novel of the same name, is the story of David Lurie—a tired, white communications professor teaching romantic poetry to apathetic students—who ultimately must come to terms with the end of Apartheid through what are presented as a series of escalating humiliations—from losing his teaching position to an attack which results in the rape of his daughter and the burning of his face. It is very clear from the beginning that these humiliations are tied to race. After pressuring a black, female student in his class to sleep with him, Lurie is forced out of the university in an echo of the Truth and Reconciliation Committees when he will not admit that he was "wrong," only that he is guilty. With no teaching position, he decides to move out to the countryside to live with his daughter, Lucy, and her lesbian partner. Upon arriving, he learns that his daughter's partner has left her and that she has established a "co-proprietorship" with Petrus, a black farmer who has helped her set up a dog kennel and flower farm with the condition that he too can live on the land.  Throughout this part of the film, David makes clear that this "co-ownership" upsets him because, ultimately, Petrus does not know his "place." He derisively calls him a "peasant" and, when seeing the goats that Petrus has purchased for a wedding party tied up outside the house, declares that he doesn't like the way that Petrus does things, inviting the "beasts to meet the people who will eat them."

District 9, on the other hand, it is set in an alternate version of the contemporary in which an extraterrestrial race have landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and have been forced by the human population to live in segregated "townships" on the outskirts of the city. The film centers on an eager, white middle-manager named Wikus Van De Merwe who is tasked by his company, the global multinational MNU, to serve eviction notices to the extraterrestrials or "prawns" as they are called by the humans, letting them know that they are being moved to a concentration camp. These notices must be served, we are informed, in order to meet the demands of international law which require that the aliens be informed of the move before it takes place. As he's serving the notices, Wikus is infected with the extraterrestrials' DNA and begins slowly transforming into a "prawn," but not before he ultimately helps two of the aliens—a parent who has been given the European name "Christopher Johnson" and child—escape the planet.

Despite their differences, what each film relies on in re-writing the contradictions of race and class as an epistemological confrontation between human and animal is what Derrida theorizes as "the gaze of the absolute other" (11); that is, the "gaze of the animal" which "offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman" (12). For example, during his time on the farm Lurie begins to work at the local rescue shelter/veterinary hospital and, as part of his transition to an "ethical" posthumanist, helps to euthanize the dogs and take them to the incinerator. Most significantly in this context, since it ultimately reflects the "realization" that Lurie undergoes over the course of the film, the attack on Lucy and him occurs after he has just told a story about the "ignobility" of a male dog that was beaten until he hated his own desire. As part of the attack the young men shoot Lucy's dogs, which is meant to signal a sharp contrast to Lurie's adopting of an "ethical" approach at the veterinary clinic. What he ultimately comes to see is that recasting his identity in the new post-Apartheid landscape will mean, in his words, being "humiliated… like a dog." This, however, is meant to indicate not simply a personal humiliation, but, by the end of the film, an inversion of his previous egoist "self" and, through identification with animals’ perspective, the full recognition of the epistemological conditions which produce otherness. When, at the conclusion of the film, Lurie leaves his car at the top of the mountain and walks down to Lucy's farm for tea, giving up on his silent protest at the "deal" that Lucy has made with Petrus to become her "wife" in exchange for protection from future attacks, the viewer has been positioned to see him as no longer able to act on his desires and thus having been reduced to being "a dog." In this way, we are meant to see the deep connection that Lurie makes between humans and animals. He sees that to be other, whether human or animal, means being "humiliated" by those in power. Of course, the image of the white professor who is powerless in the face of the black farmers completely inverts the reality of social relations in South Africa, in which unemployment is listed as anywhere from 31% to 42%, falling largely on the black population (Zeiling and Ceruti). But this, I argue, is the point. Posthumanism is an ideology which separates culture from reality and, instead, posits that regardless of the economic, social reality is always driven by divisions which violently classify those whose desires place them outside the "normal" bounds of society.

In District 9 the relationship between race and class is represented through the relay of science fiction. In the film, we learn that the extraterrestrials literally emerge from nowhere, as their ship suddenly appeared without warning in the sky over Johannesburg. It is only when the humans cut into the ship and find the aliens living in deplorable conditions with no seeming purpose that "first contact" is made. While later in the film we learn that MNU is one of the world's leading arms manufacturers and their interest in managing the situation is obtaining the alien's weapon technology, there is no reason given for the initial segregation of the aliens into townships except their "animal-like" difference. In other words, like the post-historical conclusion of Disgrace, District 9 turns the modern history of exploitation and oppression into an ahistorical fear of the other driven by the instrumental desire to "capture" all life in reductive classifications. Similar to Lurie's taking up of the dog's perspective, it is through Wikus' adopting of the "prawns'" perspective that we learn that it is "bad" to "capture" or "impose" upon life conditions which are alien to its existence—just as Derrida and Agamben suggest—but—also like Agamben and Derrida—not where these terms come from. Wikus' decision at the film's conclusion to sacrifice his own life to make sure that Christopher Johnson and his son escape is thus meant to signify the posthumanist realization that social change hinges on the individual decision of how one approaches the other. There is no broad social movement, no social collectivity, only the ethical acts of one for the other, one in debt to the other. Thus, Wikus (and the viewer) end the film with the hope that the future will be different, simply through the act of individual ethics.

This is the limit of the posthumanist theory of "difference." Insofar as it defines otherness, oppression, and exploitation as the effect of an instrumental logic of classification which is endemic to all social relations, it denies that there is any history to the ways in which people live. Instead, transformative theory becomes an "ethical" praxis that, in the words of Agamben, "must face a problem and a particular situation each and every time" (What is An Apparatus? 9). In this way, it becomes impossible to suggest that exploitation and oppression are inherent to capitalism or would be any different under any alternative mode of production. In fact, Hardt and Negri argue precisely this when they declare that "Socialism and capitalism…are both regimes of property that exclude the common" (ix). The consequence is that posthumanism effectively naturalizes capitalism by denying what Marx calls "species-being"—the basis of human freedom in the collectivity of labor—and replacing it instead with what Agamben calls "special being" or that which "without resembling any other…represents all others" (Profanations 59). When Agamben proclaims that, "‘To be special [far specie] can mean ‘to surprise and astonish’ (in a negative sense) by not fitting into established rules, but the notion that individuals constitute a species and belong together in a homogeneous class tends to be reassuring" (59) he replicates the bourgeois theory of difference which, as Marx writes, is based upon "an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice" such that "far from being considered, in the rights of man, as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself—society—appears as a system which is external to the individual and as a limitation of his original independence" (On the Jewish Question 43). In other words, the very nature of the division of labor under capitalism causes workers to blame ahistorical notions of "society" and "government" for the contradictions which reside in the economic and, in turn, seek refuge in the "freedom" of individuality which bourgeois society promises. In this way, when Agamben writes that "The transformation of the species into a principle of identity and classification is the original sin of our culture, its most implacable apparatus [dispositivo]" (60), he reproduces the sense with which people respond to capitalist exploitation by blaming the very idea of "society," rather than the society of exploitation. By taking the question of identity and difference out of the social, Agamben turns exploitation into an existential crisis which can only be resolved by the ethical recognition of difference on its own terms, leaving the contradictions of society intact.

This is how the posthumanist theories of identity return to the same structures of representation they claim to oppose because their opposition does not move beyond the economic structures of capitalism. Both the Hegelian theory of "recognition" and the posthuman theory of "singularity" are ultimately theories of the isolated individual, which is an ideological fiction arising alongside capitalism (a la "Robinson Crusoe") as a result of the economic shift toward wage-labor. They consequently substitute for more radical theories of freedom from the market the freedom of the individual in the market, as if rigid structures of social interpretations and not the system of wage-labor were holding the individual back. If we are to truly see the world differently, not just as isolated individuals, but as a united community which uses new technologies for freeing people from the drudgery of wage labor and its corresponding ideologies of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, what is necessary is a social transformation that ends the exploitation of labor upon which capitalism is based. Pluralizing identities doesn’t challenge the logic of exploitation, but actually expands it since private property establishes individual responsibility as the very basis of one's "natural" existence by stripping people of any means of survival outside of wage-labor. Thus, retreating into individualism is merely the ideological mask which is placed over the subsumption of all life under the profit motive. However, as Marx writes, regardless of appearances, "the individual is the social being. His life, even if it may not appear in the direct form of a communal life carried out together with others is… an expression and confirmation of social life" (86). Although posthumanism turns the alienation of the worker under capitalism into the very pre-condition of all culture, I argue that it is only by freeing labor from the restrictions of capitalist exploitation that, we can, as Marx writes, end racial oppression and find a "genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species" (84). 

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York and Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2007. Print. 

---. What Is an Apparatus?: And Other Essays. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedetella. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print. 

Blomkamp, Neill, dir. District 9. Perf. Sharlto Copley. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Culver City, CA, 2009. DVD. 

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet. Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print. 

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. Print. 

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. J.B. Baillie. New York and Evanston, IL: Harper & Row Publishers, 1967. Print. 

Jacobs, Steve, dir. Disgrace. Perf. John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney. Image Entertainment. Los Angeles, CA, 2010. DVD. 

Marx, Karl. On the Jewish Question. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd Ed. Ed. Robert Tucker. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978. 26-52. Print. 

---."Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt." On Colonialism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959. 335-339. Print. 

Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 6. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 476-519. Print.

---. The German Ideology. Marx–Engels Collected Works, vol. 5. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 19-539. Print. 

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print. 

Zeilig, Leo and Claire Ceruti. "Slums, Resistance and the African Working Class." International Socialism 117 (2007): n. pag. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.


THE RED CRITIQUE 14 (Winter/Spring 2012)