November 30, 2009

The Fourth Alienation

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts the young Marx analyzes how private ownership of the means of production imposes on humans a four-fold alienation: from the process of production, from its products, from other producers, and from ‘species-being’ (Gattungswessen). While the first three stages of this process have been subject to great exegesis, the last, the fourth alienation, has been neglected. In the Manuscripts this notion of species-being is cryptic, fugitive, tantalizing, a bit nebulous. It is, however, clear that Marx did not mean by species-being simply human existence as a biologically reproductive group. It is rather, the power to collectively transform this natural basis, making “life activity itself an object of will and consciousness.” Witnessing the titanic processes of nascent factory capitalism Marx alludes to human species-being as something created by cooperative organization of labour, the increasing power of humans to affect their natural environment, the emancipation of women, “cosmopolitan” urban centers, and the application of science as technology to industry. Despite the suggestive richness of this concept, which opens onto some of the very dimensions of feminism, race and ecology Marxism is often taken to task for neglecting, species-being had a checkered career.

Having introduced Gattungwesen in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx shortly thereafter abandoned it, bar fleeting return in the Grundrisse and Capital. Because the Manuscripts were unpublished until 1932, species-being never entered the Leninist lexicon. It was, however, enthusiastically embraced by Marcuse and Lukacs, who found in it a lever against Stalinism. No sooner had species-being been resurrected, however, than it was crucified, by Althusser. For Althusser, the idea lay on the wrong side of a fatal epistemological divide between early, immature, and late, scientific Marxism. It reeked of essentialism and teleology. Questions of species-being, of the relations of the human to the “hedgehog, dragonfly, rhododendron” were a philosophic trap, belonging to separate theoretical universe than the proper Marxist concepts of “the mode of production, productive forces, . . . the relations of production . . . determination in the last instance by the economy . . . and so on and so forth.” This verdict, resonating so strongly with the post-structural critique of every notion of “man,” has held sway for some time.

The Factory Planet & Futuristic Accumulation

Recently, however, the concept has drawn renewed comment from theorists including Gayatri Spivak, David Harvey, Jason Reed, Paolo Virno and others (to whom this paper is indebted). Ideas do not just fall from the sky; this reencounter with species-being is not coincidental, but conjunctural. If in 1844 we had the factory, and in the mid 20th century the social factory of Fordism, now we have the factory planet or perhaps the planet factory, a regime that subsumes not just of production, not just of consumption, not just of social reproduction (as in Fordism), but of life’s genetic and ecological dimensions. This is the moment Marx intersects with Foucault, when capital becomes a regime of biopower. Rhododendrons are spliced with frog genes to increase the harvest of flower plantations, hedgehogs are prized inhabitants of megadiversity zones bioprospected by pharmaceutical companies, and the Pentagon designs dragonfly-like insectoid bomb sniffer robots. In Capital, Marx notes that the concept of “labour” only became thinkable once capitalist mechanization and marketization homogenized or abstracted a range of work or trades—smith, cooper, weaver—so that they could be theorized as sharing an identity, being made of the same “stuff.” Today, “life itself,” abstracted as information, becomes a productive force: species-being becomes theorize-able not as some human essence or destiny, but because capital has made it a real abstraction.

Let’s just gesture at four instances. In production, capitalism’s long march to automate labour out of existence has proceeded from the assembly line to artificial intelligences and robots. In circulation, the drive to digital communications is creating new virtual territories where those who can access them live “second lives” as avatars. In social reproduction, biotechnologies already offer screening and selection processes, and promise cognitive, affective and physical augmentation up to and including cloned self-replication. In the reproduction of nature, a serious of ecological transformations, of which anthropogenic climate change is only the most titanic, reshape the biosphere into a place radically different from that on which human civilizations developed.

It is in this context we return to Gattungswessen. Marx’s species-being might really better termed species-becoming, the activity of a species whose nature is to change its nature, whose only “essence” is its historical plasticity. It can be thought of as the emergent capacity of the human biological collectivity to identify, assemble and alter itself–to be a species not only in itself, but for itself and transforming itself, directing its own evolution. Marx’s account warns against apocalyptic and euphoric views of this event; it reminds us that humans have always made themselves by a series of grafts, symbioses and prostheses with tools, nutrients, altered landscapes of a second nature—that, Katherine Hayles famously put it, “we have always been post-human.” But it is also a denunciation of this process from the point of view of its creators and its victims.

Universal Labour & the Global Worker

Labour is what Marx calls humanity’s paradoxical anti-essential essence, its natural ability to change its nature. Digital labour–the semi-automated manipulation of information–is critical to today’s production of species-being. The form of expropriation characteristic of the planet factory, typical of both digital and biotechnology industries is futuristic accumulation; speculative investment in scientific innovation, from which rents are extracted by mechanisms of intellectual property law, as copyrights, trademarks and patents. It is a series of bets on the capacity of science to radically reshape the future. Futuristic accumulation can be contrasted with primitive accumulation, based on the enclosure of pre-existing commons, and with the industrial mass mobilization of labour. Its immediate foundries of futuristic accumulation are software studios, networks and bioinformatics laboratories that are the ambience of digital labour. The military research of a fortress-state has been, and is, the major incubator for the innovations futuristic accumulation privatizes. In its the translation to corporate form, however, a critical role is played by the financial, first by venture capital, then by stock market IPOs: what is traded in the futures market are species futures; cyber and bio-futures and, now, eco-futures.

We should not, however, narrowly focus on the high end of cognitive or immaterial work. Futuristic accumulation can be contrasted with primitive accumulation, and industrial mass mobilization of labour. But in the planet factory neither of these previous forms disappears—far from it; rather they are entrained to, subordinated to futuristic accumulation. High technologies such as digital networks and genetic engineering are projects of a scale that tend to what Marx termed “communal activity, and communal mind.” Later, in Capital, he speaks of the work that produces science and technology as “universal labour.” What is shorthanded as globalization is the activation of universal labour, formed by the absorption into the wage economy of populations previously outside the capitalist core; by the massive gender recomposition, shorthanded as feminization of work; by a compounding complexity in the division of labour which links a huge heterogeneity of waged tasks, aka the service economy; by an elasticity of hours, where work fades into vocational education or prosumer activity, and by a precarity of employment, generated by the maintenance of a huge global pool of un-, or under-, employed labour.

If we adopt the terminology of the autonomist tradition, we can say we are not in the era of the craft worker, or the mass worker, but of the global worker–providing we recognize that the exemplars of this global worker are not immaterial laborers, nor even an industrial working class–whose new vocation is to make the computers on the assembly lines of the Pearl River–but a vitalist proletariat of organ sellers, surrogate mothers, the experimental subjects of big pharma, the plant and animal breeders dispossessed by corporate biopiracy, the coltan miners, e-waste scavengers, and migrant service workers who maintain the laboratories and studios of immaterial work and whose destroyed lives feeds the next mutation in life itself.

Class is defined by who appropriates surplus value from whom. In the planet factory, this extraction of value flows upward in an inverse cascade from the one billion absolutely immiserated living at the edge of famine, stopping at a series of intermediate plateau or shallow pools—the old working class, the immaterial labour—before ascending to condense in the bodies of a tiny elite global super-rich. This appropriation of value has always been an appropriation of what Melinda Cooper calls surplus life. The process by which the rich live longer, in better health, with more beautiful bodies and sensory extensions and mobility now, in the age of medical nanobots, neuro-pharmacuticals and immortality enzymes, promises to become a veritable plutocratic mutation. “Alienation,” the central problematic of the 1844 Manuscripts, is not an issue of estrangement from a normative, natural condition, but rather of who, or what, controls collective self-transformation. It is the concentration of this control in a sub-section of the species, a clade or class of the species—who then acts as gods (albeit possibly incompetent gods)—to direct the trajectory of the rest. Beyond this even, it points to perhaps to the creation of a truly alien life, a capitalist singularity, the SkyNet scenario: “in the end, an inhuman power reigns over everyone, including the capitalist himself.”

Only by recognizing how far capital is engaged in a hierarchical re-engineering of the human can we understand why many of the forms of resistance appear regressive. Marx identified two forms in which species-being is alienated: capital and religion. Each abstracts from, substitutes and imposes over the species’ collective, co-operative capacity for self-organization a fetishised authority –money or divinity. When the bio-rifts of neoliberalism make the masters of the planetary economy more and more literally ‘alien’ from those they rule, no wonder archaic fundamentalisms are the reactive response. As the two complicit alienations of species-being, futuristic capital and atavistic religion, turn on each other and on themselves in increasingly terrifying wars where swarming Predator drones and military robots hunt for pirated dirty bombs and mobile smallpox labs, all these species-altering forces converge in the one activity where Marx underestimated capitals transforming powers: the means of destruction.


Can we think, even start to think, a communism adequate to these conditions, something we might call a biocommunism? The gamble of Marxism is that liberation lies through, not prior to, alienation: there is no way home, only the capture of the strange planet to which we have been abducted. A politics against the fourth alienation, the alienation of species-being, will have to produce a post-capitalist order as different from industrial socialism as industrial socialism was from the agrarian commune, an intensification of tendencies to socialization implicit in the new forces of production and destruction. I will just gesture to four of proto-biocommunist struggles.

First, basic to biocommunism the idea of basic income–the recognition that at the levels of production and productivity generated by the planet factory every child, woman and man, even amongst the populations “superfluous” by the logic of capital, should be guaranteed at least a modest livelihood–is an expression of species-being politics.

Second, in the domain of communication, the biocommunist tendency lies through what can broadly be termed open source– using this term, however, to designate not just innovations such as Linux, but the whole array of formal and informal struggles that reconfigure networks not as commodities but as an collective infrastructure.

Third, biocommunism is a global health project: the huge investment in medical biotechnologies have ignited a series of struggles over the social body of the global worker—both of contesting private property rights over high-tech medicines such as HIV retrovirals, contrasting between the vast research funds devoted to diseases chronic to the rich, and the scant attention to the diseases of the poor.

Fourth, biocommunism is ecological planning. Integral to Marx’s original concept of species-being was that of a regulated metabolic exchange between nature and humanity. What incited this observation was the “universal poisoning” of the new industrial cities, today, on an expanding planet of slums, reaches biospheric dimensions, and the regulation of metabolic exchange wins a sudden urgency. Multiple environmental catastrophes, interlocking with crises of food and energy production, have forced into the foreground the alternative to marketization that capital tried to make unthinkable, that of the governmental direction of the conditions of species life. In the era of chaotic climate change, even the most reformist attempts to digest the eco-crisis, such as corporate cap and trade emissions scheme or carbon taxes, tacitly accept that that the market’s internalization of what were once thought of as environmental externalities requires a discipline super-ordinate to profit, even as they attempt to deny this truly inconvenient truth. What would a mere decade ago have been held unspeakably totalitarian thoughts, such as an equalitarian rationing of carbon emission quotas across the planetary population, are today utterable. Despite obvious efforts at containment, a tectonic alteration in political ground has occurred: the planned economy is back, at a species level.


In all these dimensions, species-being restores an idea long erased from the lexicons of the contemporary left: planning. What interested Marx about human species-being was not just its capacity to alter itself, but its capacity to select differing options. Famously, he contrasted the worst of architects with the best of bees: both built, but the former planned in imagination, the latter did not. Today, we know more about bees than Marx did; they do plan, not with blueprints but elaborate bee dances; they suffer from colony collapse, as perhaps we too already suffer; we also know they can evade this fate by adaptation to alien environments—urban bees don’t suffer from colony collapse like rural bees; let us then situate biocommunism as the project, not of architects versus bees, but of bees and architects, and let us labour digitally for the production of a sweet species being (even if some sharp stings have to be administered along the way).