The Deadly Reign of the Animate Object: Capitalism and Sociopathy

Stephanie McMillan, 11/23/14
(Presented at Earth at Risk conference, San Francisco)

[also posted by Burnpile Press:

We all know that capitalism is killing the world. In order to stop it, we can’t just keep resisting its effects. Capitalism doesn’t care if we protest on street corners a thousand times; that just proves how tolerant and democratic it is. The solutions are not to be found within its framework. They are even less to be found at the individual level. We don’t actually have power as consumers – they would like us to think we do, but we can’t buy, or not buy, our way out of it. It is a social system, a class system, and can only be addressed at the level of collective, organized class struggle. We need to understand capital, how it works, the mechanisms that keep it in place, and the core of its functioning.

Capitalism is a mode of production based on the exploitation of labor in the generation of surplus value. This means that workers are paid a certain amount of wages for a day’s work, but what they produce is worth more than that. The extra value is called surplus value, and the capitalist just steals it. This is what all profit is based on. This is what private property is all about – its considered normal for the social means of production, the factories and land that produce the things we all use, to be privately owned, and for those owners to simply take whatever is produced with them.

Capitalism is not just an economic process, but it’s the whole way our society is arranged, an ensemble or matrix of social relations. These comprise three main fields: economic, political, and ideological.

The economic field is determinate; profit is the point, and everything else is set up to solidify the relations of production that keep it coming.

Capitalist ideology, centered on competition and individualism, is designed to make the way we live seem normal and inevitable. It’s forced on us by its institutions: school, the church, the nuclear family, media, and culture. Why would we need advertising, for example, if they didn’t need to convince us to participate? Ideological domination is unrelenting conditioning and indoctrination to naturalize capitalism, to make us compliant, passive, greedy and self-centered. To make us identify with it, instead of understanding it as the enemy that it is.

Political domination, the job of the state, has two main aims. The first, performed by the government and its laws, is to regulate the relations within and between classes to keep the flow of capital smooth and free of obstacles. The second is for when ideological domination fails: when we can no longer accept living this way, the state turns to coercion through terrorism. This function is performed by the state’s armed forces, its military and police. If we don’t comply, the guns come out.

The entire purpose of this set-up is economic: the accumulation of wealth for a small minority of people, those who own the means of production, namely factories, tools and land. This ownership was not ordained by a god. Nor is it because capitalists are smarter or worked harder than anyone else and earned this right. It is because they took it. They started with trading, which many societies understood as thievery since it’s the exchange of unequal values. This is still the way that mercantile capitalists accumulate wealth. They continued with land theft, backed up by war and genocide.

This is still going on today. I recently returned from Haiti, where I saw huge areas of land that had been stolen from small farmers and townspeople, their houses just bulldozed down without warning, so that the government could bring in foreign investors to build industrial parks and tourist resorts. They justified this by saying that the people would get jobs in the new factories and hotels. This is the standard way that capitalists have been getting their workforce for the past 250 years.

The fundamental contradiction of capitalism, reproducing it and driving it forward, is capital vs. labor in the production of surplus value for private accumulation. This process is what produces class divisions, class domination, and class struggle. It also uses oppressive practices like racism and patriarchy, and has terrible effects like ecocide and war, which we all have to deal with. It is a global system that dominates all of social life, and all the dominated classes and social groups struggle against it in their own ways.

But the core of this is embodied in the struggle of workers against exploitation. Workers are the ones who face capital in their daily struggle for existence, in an inherently antagonistic relationship. They are the only ones able to offer an alternative to capitalism; other classes can resist but can’t break its framework. So if we are to actually destroy capitalism, the working class needs to lead all the dominated classes in a revolution, to overthrow the capitalist class.

We are all social agents, born into a structure we didn’t create. We are inserted into the existing relations of production, funneled into particular social slots serving the various requirements of capital.

Capital confines our relationships within a framework of relations between things. And it treats living beings, including humans, as objects. It has no moral or ethical framework because it’s not alive. Nevertheless, it does have a motion, drives, imperatives of its own. Its only aim is self-expansion.

Even capitalists are merely stewards of capital, and have no control over it. If they have an attack of conscience and attempt to moderate it, they are replaced. Sociopaths are drawn to this role (a higher percentage are found in this class than in the general population), because to serve capital in this way requires a lack of or total suppression of empathy. Capital has no subjectivity, and doesn’t recognize it in others. But it is animate, through and embodied in its representatives. It imbues them with its own sociopathy.

Surplus value is generated only in industrial production, when labor power is exploited in the process of converting raw materials (otherwise known as the living world) into commodities. That’s why it’s ecocidal.

Other forms of capital expansion (such as mercantile and finance) create inflated bubbles of fictitious value through unequal trading and speculation. All of that must be based on the production of physical goods. For example, China builds 12-24 ghost cities every year, mile after mile of malls with no businesses in them, and houses with no people living in them. The empty buildings serve as repositories for capital investment, objects to hold value and to speculate on.

Surplus value must be reinvested as new capital or it will degrade, it will lose value. Capital will do whatever it takes to prevent its own devaluation, including all forms of brutal oppression, endless wars, the total disregard of the needs of any living beings, stripping us of subjectivity and turning us into functions for its own reproduction, and even up to the annihilation of all life on Earth. This would, of course, mean its own destruction as well. Marx understood this when he said that class struggle will lead to either the overthrow of capitalism and the elimination of class domination in general, or the common ruin of contending classes.

We have this choice to make. But that window is closing. We each need to make our choice now and do the work required of us in this very intense and pivotal historical period: the work of understanding the structural crisis and vulnerabilities of the system we face, plus the work of organizing our forces, so that we can become strong enough to weaken and ultimately destroy it.


  1. Hello. This article was really interesting, particularly because I was investigating for thoughts on this subject last Sunday. Tory Kim Gretta

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