Birth of Thanaticism

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 all.

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 to which it owns the rights. A large part of the value of the company, after all, is the value of those rights. To 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 loose 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 praise.

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 arts.

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 thanatcisim.

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. Their object 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. Your bright 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 therapy.

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 shit! 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.






McKenzie Wark

  • zizek

    i’m guessing this is for lols, but the defintion says nothing about private property & the state’s violence enforcing work

    • mckenziewark

      You want it all in a thousand words, huh?

      • Jeremy Varon

        Ken, I love your stuff. I can’t tell if it’s a put on or for real, mimicry of ghosts of theory past or a perspective reliably “your own,” or which shows how easy or hard it is to sound like a smart person. Half the fun is not knowing the answer. And each time I walk away with a phrase, a turn of thought, some ex-cathedra pronouncement about the morbid post-human condition too probing and tantalizing to dismiss.

        Not sure, however, if there is some subterranean consensus that “it’s all over, civilization done.” Beware universalizing this kind of anomie and exhaustion; we heard it before with much postmodernism and it grew, well, tiresome.

        • mckenziewark

          But its quite the reverse. This civilization will keep expanding forever. Its the infrastructure underneath it that won’t last.

          • Jeremy Varon

            Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. Sure, America may be more no eternal than Rome, from a cosmic view. And it’s the new vogue to be certain that crisis portends collapse. But it’s amazing how societies can also muddle through, with ultimately sustainable admixtures of achievement, failure, distraction, and discontent.
            I suppose we could check back in 50 years. If it’s “Mad Max” I’ll share a litre of purloined petrol with you. If things are more or less the same you can buy me a hologram beer.

          • mckenziewark

            The record on ‘muddling through’ climate change is not good. Its probably what took down the Indus river civilizations. And that was not on a global scale.

  • Etienne

    Is there perhaps a resonance between Heidegger’s notion of ‘bestand’ … “standing reserve” and your exchange value? Heidegger’s warning was that it would be extremely dangerous for society to start giving more importance to the “standing reserve” than to the purposes that this reserve ultimately aim to fulfil.

    • mckenziewark

      I don’t find Heidegger at all useful in this context.

  • DonE

    There may be a new analogue to Marx’s industrial reserve army which increasingly falls distance to Thanaticism, that small pool of people with advanced degrees but no prospect of work within their field. For example, bioscience PhDs on their second postdoc, scratching out funding for rare disease assays that cater to the small scrap of market leftover from big pharma. It seems to me that the idea of Thanaticism sheds light on some of the conditions that those folks seem to be experiencing. How, then, could they be mobilized? Are we past the point of mobilization? If the climate scientists that you mentioned would go on strike, could they be heard any more loudly than when they issue the latest edition of the IPCC report?

    • mckenziewark

      I don’t know, but its an interesting question.

  • EndThe DrugWar

    REALITY is we live on free range serf farms structured via a top-down pyramidal money system , maintained by mass conditioning schooling and mass programming media .

    • mckenziewark

      In a word, yes.

  • Tom Leckrone

    Yes! Capital stagnates and strangles, closing off light and life via fractally inventive (and desperate) means. Imperative to get the currency flowing, distributing misbegotten and life-denying capital in all these emerging circuits of network and community.

  • Evan Sarmiento

    Way to rip off Guy Debord, you’re plagurizing.

    • mckenziewark

      which text?

  • >>>>>>>>>>>>

    So you’re saying Freud and his Thanatos/Eros dynamic was on to something after all?

    • mckenziewark

      No, I don’t think Freud is at all useful in this context.

      • Why is the default response to psychologize…

  • Allen gamble

    Sounds very Baudrillardian

  • MarkD

    I don’t understand why Freud isn’t relevant here – aren’t you talking about a death drive?

    • mckenziewark

      Yes. This has very little to do with the death drive.

  • Christo

    “Money” is the value of human effort, and possessing “Capital” is possessing potential effort.
    With no people willing to put the effort, the value of “Capital” disappears.
    So with the rise of “Capital” the human is simplified to an “effort exerting being” and other “life purposes” must diminish. It is not exactly Thanatos, but the road is getting tougher.
    Capitalism was another Broadway and we are on it for some time, (the story of the Choice of Hercules.)

    • furkanmustafa

      Actually lately (since the money as we know it), Capital doesn’t appear with efforts. Authorities print some paper and they state that people owe their efforts to authorities because of those papers, and distribute those papers to their thightly connected acquitances, so they can fetch efforts with them, build upon it, here is your capital. sounds like fair, give paper, get effort, print more paper, get more effort. And (we,) the stupid people are just fine about working for worthless papers. Only effort put in capitals before they make people work for it is tracking and protecting those papers, preventing anyone else to make same papers, etc.

      But again still, thank you for this explanation, which I totally agree and want to encourage; put no effort, there is no capital.

  • ibf

    thanks for this nice deflection

  • eeg

    “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.” This process is perhaps most akin to that of cancer or a virus. I think it is helpful to further specify the ‘Thanos’ in the manner of certain, specific cell death. One grouping of cells that first needs another grouping of cells to thrive, to grow off of, then changes the grouping of cells fundamentally so much that it ultimately kills those original cells and itself in the end. It seems to give too much to say it is the WILL to death. Cancer doesn’t suicide itself, its more a pathological lack of foresight, lack of any will, just eating itself to death like a one-note fool.

  • I awoke from a dream with the notion that it might make more sense to
    call it thanatism, after ….. Peter Linebaugh’s “thanatocracy” in “The
    London Hanged” (1991) or Suzanne Brøgger’s “Deliver Us From Love” (1976)
    or elsewhere:

    Morphogenetic dreaming?

  • Nigel Tolley

    An interesting read.
    The simple fact that even now, with returns on typical savings at historical lows, it still makes more money if you put your billions in the bank or simply loan it out yourself, than to actually do something with it that generates actual value or, indeed, create stuff, indicates we are pretty much doomed.
    Capital’s flight to capital means eventually there simply won’t be anything left for the non-wealthy. Nor will it be possible to exchange effort for capital – robots and autonomous agents will either do the work or procure it at minimal possible cost, ensuring the rich stay rich.
    Billionaires pay less for their groceries than poor folk.

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