In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism

In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism

by George Caffentzis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604863352
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Series: Common Notions Series
Edition description: Original
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

George Caffentzis is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Maine and a founding member of the Midnight Notes Collective. He is the author of Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government: John Locke's Philosophy of Money and the coeditor of A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities. He lives in New York City.

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In Letters of Blood and Fire

Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism

By George Caffentzis

PM Press

Copyright © 2013 George Caffentzis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-335-2



The litany of natural stuffs — petroleum, natural gas, uranium, coal, wood, water, sunlight — apprehension about their limits, joy in their abundance, and skepticism about their benefits, pass for the bulk of "analyses" of the "energy crisis" that "we" face. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s, Nature was "under control" and the robots (e.g., Hal in 2001) were rebelling, now it appears that Mother Nature is turning a new face. Instead of the obedient, invisible, and infinitely malleable material of social development, the terrestrial abode seems stingy and treacherously seductive. For the energy crisis is usually traced to two problems:

(a) The "limited" or "finite" amount of fossil and uranium fuels in the earth;

(b) The increasingly "surprising" discovery of interactions between the use of these fuels and their biological and social effects.

Although the analysts place different emphases on these two "problems," their "solutions" usually address both. Indeed, the "great energy debate" (at least what passes for it) is a confrontation between the anti-limitationists, who are anxious about the rapidly approaching abyss of zero-oil-coal-natural gas-uranium and are ready to introduce any "way out," however untried, and the collective interactionists, who argue that the "balance" or "fabric" of Nature is so intricate and fragile (to mix metaphors) that any of the schemes of the anti-limitationists would drive Mother Nature into a schizophrenic breakdown.

From this debate, one would presume that these are momentous times.

They are, but not in the way that is being implied. On the one side, the anti-limitationists cringe in terror at the prospect of a "day the earth stood still" repeated so often that "civilization" (sometimes with the proviso "as we know it") collapses into an age of social anarchy — starvation, rape, murder, and cannibalism ("What's new?" we might ask). On the other side stand the equally apocalyptic interactionists envisioning huge floods let loose by the CO "hot house" effect, or the end of all biological life due to the depletion of the ozone layer causing a tidal wave of high-energy radiation to penetrate the chromosome linkages and break down the proteins, or a festering mutant jungle released by the radioactive wastes of nuclear reactors. Conclusion: either social anarchy or natural anarchy. "Take your choice," we're told. But must we choose? Are these our alternatives?

This debate, with its apocalyptic overtones, indicates a crucial crisis for capital and its attempt to carry through a major reorganization in the accumulation process to overcome it. The Apocalypse is no accident. Whenever the ongoing model of exploitation becomes untenable, capital has intimations of mortality qua the world's end. Every period of capitalist development has had its apocalypses. I'm not referring here to the microapocalypse of death: everybody dies, and even if everybody dies at the same time (I mean everybody), what's the problem? The earth becomes a cleared tape and why should the angels grieve?

I am talking about those functional apocalypses that mark every major change in capitalist development and thought. For the Apocalypse was approached at other times in the history of capital, when the class struggle reached a level that jeopardized capital's command.

In the seventeenth century, a pervasive premonition of apocalypse was voiced by the "philosophers," "astronomers," and "anatomists" (i.e., capital's planners) in the face of the revolutionary upheavals of the newly forming proletariat that was being introduced to the capitalist discipline of work. In this phase, questions of inertia, time, and order were paramount. The control mechanisms were manageable only by external forces. Capital's concern with its apocalyptic potentialities can be seen reflected in Newton's theory of the solar system: the planets revolve around the sun, but their revolutions continually deviate from the equilibrium path because of the random, irregular gravitational impulses they communicate to each other. Ptolemy's crystal suddenly looked like a mob that with this-and-that, slowly, imperceptibly, became unruly, though it was nominally dominated by the gravitational field of the sun. The deviations accumulated to a point where some planets would spin off into the stellar depths while the others would dive into the sun's inferno. Hence Newton's argument for the necessity of God's existence, whose function in the universe was to prevent this catastrophe by periodically returning the planets to their equilibrium orbits via a true miracle. The solar system was the "Big Watch" and God was not only the watchmaker but also the watch repairer. Otherwise the mechanism, however finely wrought, would snap and break through its blind obedience to the laws of inertia. God must intervene to create orderly time from chaotic mixtures of inertia and attraction. Given the universal identification of God with the state in the seventeenth century, it is not hard to decipher Newton's prescription for the state policy vis-à-vis the apocalypse portended by its "wandering stars," the proletariat. (A prescription Newton embodied in his job as the inquisitor and torturer of counterfeiters for the Royal Mint.)

In the Newtonian period, capital's main task is the regularization of time as a precondition for lengthening the working day. Medieval production time was circular and the pacing of work and "rest" fixed by "eternal" seasonal and diurnal dichotomies. Summer and days could not be stretched; winter and nights could not be shrunk at will. Newton and his fellow "century of genius" planners had to create a nonterrestrial work-time that would be the same in winter and summer, in the night as in the day, on earth as it is in heaven. Without this transformation of time, lengthening the working day would be impossible to imagine, much less impose "with fire and blood."

By contrast, the "revolutions" and organizational forms thrown up by the working class in the first half of the nineteenth century spelled the end of a period where profits could be created by stretching the working day to its limit. Capital had to "revolutionize" the technical and social conditions of production to turn the proletarian revolt against work into an intensively productive working day. Absolute time was no more of the essence, productive intensity was. Capital could no more complain that the working class was inert, unmotivated, or tending to rest. The class was on the move, scheming, energetic, and volatile. If the workhouse prison sealed from "the elements" was the first laboratory of work, the working class was clearly blowing out the sides of the container and destroying the experiment. The problem was no more how to confine workers as long as possible, but how to transform their energy and revolutionary heat into work. Not surprisingly, thermodynamics, "the study of energy, primarily with regard to heat and work," became the science after 1848.

Thermodynamics began with Sadi Carnot's attempt to determine the possibilities and limits of creating productive work out of heat and energy; when in confining it, it explodes. His leading idea was that if a mass is exploding, you should give it a way out in a way that it will push a piston and thus do work for you. Carnot's analysis focused upon an idealized version of Manchester's "demonic" steam engine, and attempted to determine the conditions under which the expansion/compression cycle of a gas would give a maximum amount of work. Carnot's cycle thus became a representation of the cycle of class struggle that was taking shape in the nineteenth century, putting the working class's wage demand at the center of the "business cycle."

Carnot's laws of thermodynamics grew out of his memoir and led, as Ariadne's threads, out of the "crisis labyrinth." For physics is not only about Nature and applied just to technology, its essential function is to provide models of capitalist work. The ultimate nature for capital is human nature, while the crucial element of technology is work. The First Law of thermodynamics, for example, did not simply recognize that though energy has many forms (not just "mechanical"), each could be transformed into the other without loss. Its consequences impinged on capital's conception of labor-power. A more general view of energy was imperative if the technical and social conditions of production were to be "revolutionized," for the old mode of production assumed a fixed limit on the forms of energy that could generate work. This new Law taught capital a generality and flexibility in its productive arrangements that it did not even experiment with in the First Industrial Revolution.

Like Darwin's discovery, Gustav Mayer's first enunciation of the law of the conservation of energy occurred in a typical nineteenth-century way — on an imperial voyage to the tropics. "A sailor fell ill of some lung disease. Mayer bled him, observed that venous blood was a brighter red in the tropics, much closer to arterial, and concluded that metabolism drew less oxygen from the blood in hot climates because maintenance of body temperature required less heat." In Mayer's perspective, the sailor's body was the mediator of manifold forms of force that are "indestructible, variable, imponderable." Though the forms of force and energy would change their transformations, they conserved the basic quantity of production — energy. The concept of energy is thus defined on such a level of generality and abstractness that an enterprising spirit would see the possibility of producing work from novel, untoward sources.

While the infinite multiplicity of energetic forms inspired a tremendous optimism in capital's search for new workforces, thermodynamics laces this high with arsenic: the Second Law. An ominous version goes like this: a perpetual motion machine completely transforming the energy of the surroundings into work without loss is an impossibility. The Second Law, however, has even darker consequences than deflating capital's dream of getting work for free (having workers "living on air"). It states that in any work-energy process less and less energy becomes available for work. Entropy (the measure of work unavailability) increases. Clausius put it in cosmic form: "The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe increases to a maximum."

The Second Law announced the apocalypse characteristic of a productivity-craving capital: heat death. Each cycle of work increases the unavailability of energy for work. As the efficiency of the heat engine depends on the distance between heat input and heat output, the Second Law predicts a slow, downhill leveling of heat-energy differences (on a cosmological scale), until there are no more flows of energy for work. "The world is living on its capital" and all around is the whisper of the impending silence.

This image of an undifferentiated, chaotic world had a twofold echo: in the rhetoricians of mass culture like Henry Adams ("the so-called modern world can only pervert and degrade the conceptions of the primitive instinct of art and feeling, and that our only chance is to accept the limited number of survivors — the one-in-a-thousand of born artists and poets — and to intensify the energy of feeling within that radiant centre"), and in the pragmatic thought of Frederick Taylor. Henry Adams mourned over the loss of accumulated values that, at best, could only be "saved" in the leveling of social and cultural differences announced by "energy's dissipation" into a heat death apocalypse. Taylor instead saw in this apocalypse the essence of a project: productivity is efficiency. His answer to the Second Law (if not absolutely, relatively) is not "conservative," it is a "revolutionary" attempt to create a far more efficient organization of work and to perfect the intermeshing of worker with environment. Taylor attempted in practice what Carnot did in theory: test the limits of an efficient transformation of energy into work. In a typical American fashion, he turned to the man-machine. Once again, it seemed that the apocalypse could be averted if Action was taken. This time, however, it was not the action of God qua superstate, but capital's planning in its own self-conscious, scientific analysis: scientific management.

Newton's apocalypse and Clausius's apocalypse do not simply have analogical connections with capital's crisis in their respective periods. The theories from which their apocalypses derive from do not merely have contingent or ideological relations with the contemporary, ongoing organization of work. Capitalist crises stem from refusal of work. Thus, in times of crisis, new analyses of work, new schemes for overcoming resistances to it become imperative. Physics, in this context, does not have a separate content, but provides definite analyses of work and new plans for its organization. Its "models" may appear abstract, but they are directly related to the labor process.

Newton's parable of the transformation of working-class inertia into work and his appeal to God qua State to restore equilibrium under centripetal and centrifugal pressures is a general methodological scheme. The relation of thermodynamics to work is more explicit. The work of thermodynamics and the work of capital are no mere homonyms. Capital faces working-class resistance to work in continuously new ways as this resistance changes in its power and organization (though it may seem "impotent" and "chaotic"). Capital is concerned with physical work because the labor-process is the transformation of labor-power (energy, inertia) into labor (work). This is the "eternal necessity" of capital, and physics provides models for overcoming "resistances" and measuring rods of levels of crisis. The Apocalypse is an extreme measure of the failure of these models. Capital's problem in the nineteenth century changes from that of Newton's time in the same way the resistance of inert machines shifts into the chaotic energy of random microparticles. Essentially, however, it remains the same: what is the possibility, limit, and method of creating useful work ("order") out of the almost natural evasion, subversion, resistance, and covertness or the working class?

Capital's despair is always hypothetical, yet always virtually existent. This is the multiple function of the apocalypse. It serves not only as a parameter for the ongoing process of work organization and experimentation, it serves also as a reminder and a threat: a reminder, because capital's control is contingent and revolutionary potentialities exist at each instant; a threat, because it attempts to project the destruction of capital as the destruction of the universe (as in the heat death). As long as the "elements" of the working class are attached to the totality, the apocalypse is the extreme point where opposites meet in avoidance. It is capital's threat, if we go too far, to take us all down with it. If we annoy God too much, if we agitate too much, if we become too unavailable for work, then the "mutual destruction of the classes" is used as a club to bring us back into line. But must the molecule fear if the engine dies?

What of the "energy crisis" and its apocalypses? The first thing to note is that the term "energy crisis" is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital's crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the "work crisis" or, better yet, the "work/energy crisis." The problem Capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor-power) that creates it. Capital is not just a product of work. Capital is the process of work-creation, i.e., the condition for transforming energy into work. Energy has within it a restless activity, an unpredictable microscopic elusiveness, antagonistic, indifferent as well as productive of the work that capital so desperately needs. Though the eternal cycle of capitalist reality is the transformation of energies into work, its problem is that unless certain quantitative levels are reached, the relationship expressed in the work/energy ratio collapses. If entropy increases, if the availability of the working class for work decreases, then the apocalypse threatens.

The forms that the apocalypse takes in this crisis are crucial. They signal both a warning and a specific threat, just as the heat death apocalypse inspired Taylorism and the Newtonian centripetal/centrifugal catastrophes dictated certain features of mercantilist state intervention. What do the anti-limitationists and interactionists allow for decoding the present crisis? The first step in the decoding must lie with "nature." It appears that Nature and its stuffs are an independent pole, given, and distinct from capital — it's "raw" material, as it were. From the exhaustion curves of oil or natural gas it appears that a black hole is absolutely devouring them. But for capital, Nature qua Nature is nonexistent. Nature too is a commodity. You never have oil, or natural gas, or even photons that do not take a commodity form. Their commodity reality is what is crucial. Even when you talk of the Earth or the solar system, you cannot speak of a noncapitalist reality. The energy problem is unequivocally a problem of capital and not of "nature" or "Nature and Man." Our problem is to see that capital's difficulties in planning and accumulating spring from its struggle against the refusal of work (the multidimensional subversion of the orderly transformation of energy into work). Thus, according to our decoding, through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle.


Excerpted from In Letters of Blood and Fire by George Caffentzis. Copyright © 2013 George Caffentzis. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Work/Refusal

The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse 11

Mormons in Space (with Silvia Federici) 58

The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri 66

Three Temporal Dimensions of Class Struggle 82

A Critique of "Cognitive Capitalism" 95

Part 2 Machines

On Africa and Self-Reproducing Automata 127

Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx's Theory of Machines 139

Marx, Turing Machines, and the Labor of Thought 164

Crystals and Analytic Engines: Historical and Conceptual Preliminaries to a New Theory of Machines 176

Part 3 Money, War, and Crisis

Freezing the Movement and the Marxist Theory of War 203

The Power of Money: Debt and Enclosure 236

Notes on the Financial Crisis: From Meltdown to Deep Freeze 241

On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction: A Theoretical Review 252

Bibliography 273

Index 284

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"[George Caffentzis] is a lively and dogged polemicist; he dances circles around the pompous marxologist. . . The lever by which he overturns the world is light as a feather, and its fulcrum is as down to earth as the housewife, the student, the peasant, the worker. Here is capitalist critique and proletarian reasoning fit for our time."  —Peter Linebaugh, author, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All

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