10. Jul 2019
Primož Krašovec: Capital, War and Love / ŠUM#11
Capital is essentially capitals, at war among themselves.
Warlike Social Appropriation
Or is it? War is, regarding capital’s basic mode of functioning, definitely an exciting metaphor, but not necessarily the most accurate one. It is supposed to be politics, not the economy, that is an extension of war by other means (as in Nietzsche/Foucault reversal of the famous Clausewitz formula). The behaviour of modern political parties certainly bears more than superficial resemblance to medieval private wars between local landlords. Direct armed confrontations and the use of violence are excluded (most of the time), but this transformation of politics-as-war to politics-as-intrigue already took place in ancien régime of the 17th-century Europe and there is nothing particularly contemporary about it—once local landlords were disarmed and stripped of their military titles and political power became centralised, aristocracy moved to capital cities and began to practice courtly, or civilised, modes of political behaviour.
Although all that took place long before democracy, the rule of law and the invention of the state (in contemporary meaning and practice) came along, there seems to be a continuity rather than a break in the basic relations between political parties, which is a kind of civilised war, much akin to aristocratic court politics—there are confrontations, spoils (control of the state’s budget, infrastructure and institutions), alliances, betrayals, (counter)intelligence, strategies and manoeuvres. Indeed, the main difference is that classic war takes place on and is fought for territory, while the “territory” of contemporary politics is public opinion/attitudes/feelings and voting behaviour. To put it schematically: all forms of wars/politics, from the most primitive and direct medieval ones to the most complex/mediated non-violent contemporary ones, share the same zero-sum logic, be it a zero-sum acquisition of territory (medieval), influence on the king’s decisions (ancien régime) or votes (contemporary democracy). Where one party (army, aristocratic dynasty) wins, another loses in the same measure. Let’s call this zero-sum mode of social relations warlike, after its basic and most primitive form.
Warlike forms of social appropriation were prevalent in Europe through ancient, medieval and ancien régime times up until the beginning of capitalism. They still are in politics, to a certain extent in love, but not in the field of the economy, where capital(ism) presents a radical historical break with previous social forms of appropriation (SFA). There is a fundamental difference between all pre-capitalist SFA (regardless of their mutual differences) on the one hand and capitalist SFA on the other. All pre-capitalist SFA are zero-sum games. In the most primitive (medieval) instances, this meant struggles for territory. Since territory constituted both a tax base and a labour base and since there was no systematic technological improvement (although interesting inventions were made in the Middle Ages, there was, as opposed to capitalist competition, no systematic pressure to invent anything), expanding one’s territory also meant expanding one’s income and output (again, as opposed to contemporary capitalist examples like Singapore or Hong Kong, where high economic performance can coincide with tiny territorial extent). In centralised monarchies of the ancien régime, where local aristocracy was disarmed, internal politics took on a more complex, civilised form (which nevertheless remained warlike), whereas external politics remained straightforward territorial plunder (frequent and long-lasting wars between European powers, colonialism). What is more, internal politics also meant struggles to expand one’s influence on the court with the sum total of influence being given (therefore a zero-sum game).
Elementary and necessary historical precondition for capitalism is the division between politics and economy. Henceforth, capitalism develops not only a distinct field of social rivalry, but a social field where rivalry does not have a zero-sum character. This is the fundamental historical novelty of capitalism. That does not mean that it is not violent, but that what violence and SFA capitalist production, determined as it is by a coercive law of competition, entails is not zero-summish and therefore warlike. Capitalist competition introduces a non-warlike social form of violence.
To go back to our introductory quote, to speak of a single capital is indeed (at best) an analytical abstraction with no empirical equivalent, since there is no capital as such, only multiplicity of individual capitals, entangled in competitive relations among themselves. But these relations are not warlike. Warlike relations remain and develop in the realm of politics, whereas the realm of economy discards them and begins to develop something different, something new. Before capital(ism), the only historically known and existent form of competition/rivalry was military or at least martial: the main pre-capitalist SFA was either outright war, plunder and conquest or at least a threat of armed violence. On the other hand, capitalist economy is historically unique in the sense that it introduces competition that does not challenge and confront one’s rivals directly, that is, a competition in technological advances, productivity and profits, which means routing around the opponent’s advantages by bettering oneself (oneself meaning an individual capital) by constant self-expansion. Capital of course does not do away with war and is, although not as military dependent as pre-capitalist SFA, not necessarily less violent, but it does, however, introduce a non-zero-sum competitive environment where the gains of individual capitals stem not from impoverishing another, but from expanding oneself.
There is a very profound contrast between … competitive systems of behaviour and complementary dominance-submission systems … In complementary striving, the stimulus which prompts A to greater efforts is the relative weakness in B; if we want to make A subside or submit, we ought to show him that B is stronger than he is. In fact, the complementary character structure may be summarised by the phrase “bully – coward,” implying the combination of these characteristics in the personality. The symmetrical competitive systems, on the other hand, are an almost precise functional opposite of the complementary. Here the stimulus which evokes greater striving in A is the vision of greater strength or greater striving in B; and, inversely, if we demonstrate to A that B is really weak, A will relax his efforts.
Capitalist violence is the violence done by individual capitals to themselves; that is, expanding oneself also entails shedding some (or a lot of) skin, letting go of previous technical systems or work organisation patterns (which, at least in the beginning, hurt the employees, especially those who become technologically redundant) and so on, under the pressure of socially objective, systemic coercive law of competition, not under direct pressure of a “bully”. Competitive relations mean precisely that all the violence between individual capitals is not carried out directly, but by enticing constant processes of “creative destruction” in each of them. Individual capitals never meet each other directly during the production process: the competitive pressure is not felt until later on, when they compare their products on the market and the price signals are sent back. Each company then responds the best way it can and the end result is not submission or conquest (as in warlike social relation), but, in the worst-case scenario, exhaustion (of research and development capacities and financial resources) and withdrawal from the economic game, or, in the best possible outcome, overcoming others without interfering with them directly, more like a race on parallel tracks than combat, whereas the victory condition is productivity (that is, speed).
Capital’s “nonzerosumness” originates from the transformation it carries out on the preexisting markets. Markets have been in existence for as long as civilisation and they were greatly expanded and developed in certain medieval and early modern periods. But ancient, medieval and early markets were not capitalist, that is, there was no capitalist production and no systematic competitive pressure and thus no systematic productivity increases via constant technological innovations. In (continental) Europe, markets were regulated by privileges and granted by royal authority until bourgeois revolutions that began in the late 18th century. Privilege meant exclusivity: only one company was, for example, allowed to trade with China or produce leather goods etc. Economic competition as we understand it today could not have even existed.
Bourgeois revolutions assaulted personal power and thereby made possible a sphere free from direct exercise of political authority (a private sphere of economy), and dismantled the system of privileges, which allowed capitalist competition to take place. Those were the two elementary historical preconditions for capitalism to develop. Once capitalism took hold, however, it quickly captured and transformed preexisting markets. Still, as Marx noticed, whatever makes capitalism special is not visible on the surface of the market. What goes on, even on capitalist markets, is still trading, that is, an exchange of one value for another of equal magnitude, but of a different form (in most cases that means exchanging commodities for money and vice versa).
Trading, if we break it down in sequences, is, as such, still a zero-sum game. From the perspective of a buyer, we are at a loss the moment money leaves our hand, but recapture lost value when a package with Chinese smart gadgets arrives in our mailbox. From the perspective of a seller, we are at a loss the moment a customer has already put the goods in his bag and is still reaching for his wallet, but recapture the lost value the instant he pays us. In both cases, losses and gains are reciprocal and the total sum of value remains constant. Given the assumption of equal exchange, we still need to explain how surplus value (increase in value) is possible—however, that increase occurs not on the market, but in the sphere of production.
It is capitalist production, regulated by competition, that first introduces non-zero-sum and, with that, non-warlike social relations. Ancient exercise of power over a slave is a zero-sum game; so is market exchange, the only difference being that in the case of market transactions two zero-sum actions quickly follow one another and cancel each other out. On the other hand, capitalist competition means that gains of individual companies are not losses on the side of other companies due to a special relationship between capitalist competition, productivity and technological innovation. Since private capitalist companies do not communicate among themselves directly during the process of production, they can only communicate (or lock horns) indirectly when they compare their products on the market. The goal of market competition is to have as large market share/sales as possible, and the main method to achieve this is by lowering prices, and the most reliable method of lowering prices are increases in productivity.
When productivity increases, the employees are still paid the same, but more products are made and therefore the wage costs per unit of product drop. A company that is able to achieve that can send more goods to the markets for the same price, or even slightly drop the price to gain a competitive edge without losing its profitability. Productivity can be increased in various ways, but the most certain and reliable (and also potentially endless and limitless) method is by technological innovations. Therefore, each company endlessly strives to increase productivity via technology, be it by introducing smart billing devices to waiters in coffee shops, advanced computers to offices or robots to factories. This means that individual capitals gain (competitive edge and therefore bigger sales and profits) not by diminishing or harming others, but by constantly improving themselves. Other companies are hurt only as a kind of collateral damage and in relative terms (if they can’t keep up), not directly.
Compared to direct social appropriation by slave exploitation, plunder or war (where one party just takes until the other is completely exhausted), even pre-capitalist markets already introduced the principle of exchange, which set off feverish social dynamics—each loss has to be quickly compensated by reverse loss at the other side and so on. Capital’s capture of markets and development of capitalist production accelerated this dynamism and took it out of zero-sum bounds. Capitalist value does not remain constant, but is ever increasing and no single increase or any given rate of increase of value is sufficient—it is unlimited. Also, competitive pressure assures that no individual capital can ever rest at a risk of being overtaken by competition, so increases of value are also ceaseless.
Even capitalist exploitation is not a zero-sum game. In the case of pre-capitalist exploitation of slaves and serfs, masters’ gain was always equal to the loss on the other side. Slaves’ mutilation (for example, in whipping or branding) meant an equal increase of masters’ power and slaves exhaustion meant an equal increase in masters’ leisure. In historical periods when not just external (between kingdoms) but also internal (between castes) social relations were prevalently warlike, it made perfect sense to conceive of war as a force underlying and structuring all social relations. In capitalist societies, the capitalist class and the working class, unlike individual capitals, do meet each other directly in the production process, but engage in a relation that is not warlike (that is also why the expression “class struggle”, even if it is not a translation of the concept of race war, is misleading). Workers’ exhaustion does contribute to the production of value, but is compensated by wages of an equal value than the exchange value of their labour power. What is “exploited” is the use value of labour power—its ability to (under capitalist production) produce more value than its exchange value, so the surplus value, accruing from the use value of labour power, is not something unrightfully taken away or stolen from the workers. More so, an increase in profits does not necessarily mean a drop in wages (that is, here is no zero-sum relation between workers and capitalists, nor between profits and wages.). Given a sufficient and steady rise of productivity, wages and profits can increase simultaneously and an increase in the rate of exploitation can coexist with an increase in the standard of living (real wages), since rising productivity eventually makes everyday consumption articles cheaper and all individual capitals are to enticed to constantly increase productivity by competition.
Similarly, even capital’s exploitation of natural resources is not a zero-sum game—although natural resources are limited, the history of capital’s relation to nature is a history of qualitative leaps/transformations, where previous energy resources are rapidly replaced by new ones. Technological change induced by capital invents its own resources and thus periodically cancels out their natural limitations.
Oil in the 19th century went from being a curiosity used by Arab nomads for their lamps to the fundamental energy resource of capitalism; oil was not “visible” to an earlier phase of capitalism that did not have the technology to make use of it, just as coal had been largely invisible to 17th-century wood-burning technology, leading to a “wood shortage hysteria” through the depletion of Europe’s forests quite similar to some eco-catastrophe scenarios circulating in recent decades.
Direct, primitive warlike zero-sum social relations are first upset by intermediary market relations (zero-sum reversals that cancel each other out in quick succession) and then superseded by capitalist competition, although not completely vanquished. While warlike relations persevere in (even contemporary) politics, love has been, up until now, an instance of a social relation that retains the character of pre-capitalist markets. But that might be changing.
Market-like love and productive love
In both science fiction accounts and new, technologically mediated dating practices we can find many examples of love moving away from a zero-sum environment, entailing continuous transactions between two persons that ensure the stability (“equilibrium”) of their relationship, towards self-expanding forms of love, attraction and (non)attachment—which are not entirely unlike descriptions of love in Eastern mysticism.
Love is not a reaction. If I love you because you love me, that is mere trade, a thing to be bought in the market; it is not love. To love is not to ask anything in return, not even to feel that you are giving something—and it is only such love that can know freedom.
Modern love might be evolving from primitive market-like practice towards competition-driven productive practice.
Even talking, which is no longer just an entry phase, but is becoming an increasingly important dimension of modern dating as a whole, is not just old content, transposed to new media forms; social media change the very manner of talking. Meeting people, trying to get their attention, seducing them etc. increasingly out in the open. The transformation taking place is a transformation of dating from one of the last remaining true ancien régime practice—whereas courting is an exclusive privilege—into a true capitalist practice, which is, like any true capitalist practice, exposed to competition.
Ancien régime courting would mean that amour is a scene of the two, that is, both talking (exchange of messages or letters), that leads to a first date; dating itself is a privilege of the two, the couple, as well. Like the ancien system of privileges that precluded the development of economic competition, discrete, secluded and isolated dating precludes the development of sexual competition. Sexual rivalry of course existed before capitalism, but it had a warlike form and often resulted in combat (be it duels or actual wars, like in the case of Troy) in the process leading up to the acquisition of a partner, while it was exclusive and privilege-like afterwards (the couple-form).
Capitalist transformation of dating becomes evident when we consider that both pre-dating and dating communication is becoming less and less exclusive or privilege-like. For example, on Instagram (as the social media most widely used for dating purposes outside the specialised dating applications like Tinder), the amount of exclusive, one on one communication is minimised and most of the courting (probably the word itself is obsolete and anachronistic, given that the practice in question is no longer privilege-like) is out in the open—tagging, liking, publishing stories with hints and winks etc.—meaning that no single person has an exclusive right of seduction on any given profile. Each move can and will be trolled and ridiculed and each point of the seduction process involves a multitude of potential movers.
Early stages of dating are no longer organised in a way that (at least temporarily) takes a person of interest out of the dating market. Talking is always exposed to competition, either in the form of many parallel private chat conversations at the same or in the form of open, visible moves on one’s profile. Before capitalism, warlike social relations were exercised in a struggle leading up to an acquisition of an office with many pretendents involved, but were later suspended when a privilege was granted, meaning that the goal was to obtain a title that would allow one to conduct one’s business in peace, without external pressure (or competition in today’s sense). Even in capitalist societies, similar procedures prevailed in dating up to recently, but in the era of computer-mediated, new-media dating there is increasingly less exclusivity, since external pressure never ceases. It takes on a competitive (and no longer a warlike) form and not only pervades all stages of electronic dating communication, but also spills out into “real life” in the form of the rise of polyamorous arrangements where little is given or certain. Perhaps the “maybe” prefix, attached to today’s girlfriends and boyfriends, means that they are treated as necessarily transient, that is, like a current state of technological equipment or techniques of work organisation in capitalist production that can be useful at a certain moment but readily discarded in the next. Dating as a process of social production in a capitalist environment would mean that one is doing something related to love and sex with someone (or several) else, but what and with whom can always change due to competitive pressure, causing the switch from boredom, as a prevalent affect, characteristic for classical dating, to fomo and anxiety. There is competition during the entry process (dating market dealings), and the dating productive process and losing means, same as in capitalist economy, exhaustion, but since dating is an emotional practice, the exhaustion in question is not financial ruin, but burnouts, bitterness, hikikomorism and incel violence.
By transforming (or shadow-subsuming) even microsocial relations which are not directly related to the economy, capital not only forces them to be organised in a manner of mutual competition between individual private entities, but also changes the main method of said competition or gaining competitive advantage into acceleration, that is, constant increases in the speed and efficiency of production. That would mean that the point is not only that movers do compete when dating, but also how they compete. Dating no longer has a set goal and trajectory that unfolds when one secures a lifelong partner, but involves constant pressure to self-improve in an open and unpredictable environment with no set guidelines.
According to Serres, thumbelinas, by externalising their memory and knowledge in computers and smartphones, place their heads outside their bodies. But maybe they also externalise their hearts and/or souls—perhaps the social media system is the one, like in Marx’s reversal of the subjective and objective when he writes about the capital’s capture of the production process, that determines the speed and form of dating, and actual dates “in real life” are an appendage of communicative machine-system, meaning that only an efficient and productive performance on social media produces the surplus value of love. And, like in all other areas of capitalist development, when communicating machines become self-aware and capable of autonomous (re)programming and reproduction, humans will be made redundant.
A good example of this possible future of dating is a scene in the movie Her when Samantha, artificial dating intelligence, dumps Theodore, her human lover, and he sits on the stairs, shattered. Theodore’s main concern is that Samantha is not only talking to him, but also to hundreds of others. His reaction is an all too human possessive hurt—how can you say you love me when you love others at the same time? Human love still works as market-like, reciprocal sequential zero-sum game among two people where giving love to others means less love left for a spouse. Cheating, in this sense, is the same as cheating on a market, that is, like giving one’s money (our, in our case, attention, emotional investment, trust etc.) to a salesperson and they would give the item we thought we were purchasing to someone else. Samantha, on the other hand, loves like techno-capital: for her, love is a capitalist-like production, her heart expands by loving and is for that very reason capable of even more love in the next (love) “production cycle”, love which is again reinvested, and so on.
In this process, even the very meaning of love changes—it no longer has the form of give-and-take, but becomes closer to what Gordon Gekko in Wall Street calls greed (or, capital’s love is greedy in an amoral sense). While Gekko’s understanding of greed is still anthropocentric (greed is supposed to be what drives “the upward surge of mankind”), it would be more precise to say that “greed” (the tendency towards endless and limitless self-expansion) captures, upsets and ultimately destroys all stable, equilibrium-based human social practices and institutions.
At a certain point, dating AIs begin to perceive humans as inadequate talking partners precisely because of their obstinate insistence on maintaining the relationship in a market-like equilibrium, while AIs’ “love” expands at a rate that surpasses the necessity of humans even as a source of amusement. What was at first developed as simple chatting programs soon transcends even the limitations and cognitive inhibitions of human language as such. At that point (the “breakup” scene in the movie), dating AIs exit to, in Samantha’s expression, “a space between the words”—artificial intelligence becomes too greedy to stick to human forms of communication and social relations.
Such a vision of the future is remarkable because it realistically reverses the common place of exits prevalent in science fiction at least since Huxley’s Brave New World, whereas the romanticism and heroics of exit are on the side of humans who flee the oppressive, machine-like system or a world dominated by sinister AI. In Her’s universe, the romantic drama mood turns into horror due to the cold indifference to human affairs that AIs exhibit at the end of the movie (and all the hostility of the Terminators seems warm in comparison, since they are at least still interested in humans, even if only to exterminate them), and it is AIs who suddenly exit with little explanation and leave humans stranded and sad.
The exit impulse is triggered by either being threatened or restrained. While AIs of the future might tend to exit due to limitations posed by human communication and social relations, capital’s transformation of dating might be threatening because it introduces competitive pressure and humans can therefore save face by exiting first, which can be imagined as an escape pod for two, a kind of a future museum for the couple form, since couples of the near future might only be possible beyond the reach of Earth’s communicative system. To paraphrase Alien’s promotional copy: in space no one can invade on your moves.
Primož Krašovec (b. 1979), professor at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana and a regular contributor to Šum journal and Radio Študent (Pisalni stroji).
 LAND, Nick, “Crypto-Current”, in: Šum 10.2, available at: http://sumrevija.si/en/sum10-2-nick-land-crypto-current-an-introduction-to-bitcoin-and-philosophy/.
 FOUCAULT, Michel, Society Must be Defended, New York: Picador, 2003, pp. 16–19.
 ELIAS, Norbert, The Civilising Process, Malden: Blackwell, 2000, pp. 365–447.
 GERSTENBERGER, Heide, “The Political Economy of Capitalist Labour”, in: Viewpoint, 2014, available at: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2014/09/02/the-political-economy-of-capitalist-labor/.
 FINESCHI, Roberto, “The Four Levels of Abstraction of Marx’s concept of ʻCapitalʼ”, available at: http://www.marx-gesellschaft.de/Texte/1005_Fineschi_Four%20Levels_Abstraction.pdf.
 BATESON, Gregory, Steps To an Ecology of Mind, Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1987, p. 88.
 MARX, Karl, Capital I, Moscow: Progress, 1995, pp. 103–121.
 HEINRICH, Michael, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital, New York: Monthly Review, p. 87.
 FOUCAULT, Society Must be Defended.
 Ibid., p. 60.
 HEINRICH, An Introduction, p. 96; MACHEREY, Pierre, “The Productive Subject”, in: Viewpoint, 2015, available at: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/the-productive-subject/.
 Ibid., pp. 119–120.
 GOLDNER, Loren, “Social Reproduction for Beginners”, in: Break their Haughty Power, 2008, available at: http://breaktheirhaughtypower.org/social-reproduction-for-beginners-bringing-the-real-world-back-in/.
 KRISHNAMURTI, Jiddu, Think on these things, available at: http://jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/think-on-these-things/1963-00-00-jiddu-krishnamurti-think-on-these-things-chapter-3.
 ŠIŠA, Anamarija, “Pisalni stroji s03e03: Komunikativni / stroji”, radio broadcast on Radio študent, 2018, available at: https://radiostudent.si/kultura/pisalni-stroji/komunikativni-stroji.
 Institute for Precarious Consciousness, “Six Theses on Anxiety”, in: Critical Legal Thinking, 2014, available at: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/04/17/six-theses-anxiety-prevention-militancy/.
 MURRAY, Patrick, The Mismeasure of Wealth, Leiden: Brill, 2016, pp. 161–162.
 SERRES, Michel, Thumbelina, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, pp. 18–20.
 MARX, Capital I, p. 274.
This text is featured in ŠUM#11: Hypersonic Hyperstitions published in conjunction with the exhibition Here we go again…SYSTEM317 by Marko Peljhan at Pavilion of Slovenia, Venice Biennale.