Reflections about “On Necrocapitalism”
With the book version of On Necrocapitalism about to be released by Kersplebedeb, I felt it would be worth reflecting on my participation in this collective writing project.
At the beginning of the pandemic myself and several others initiated a collective writing project with the intention of charting the unfolding events of the global plague. Conceived as a philosophical plague journal, the project was a serialized work of chain theory: following the initial prologue, the chapters would be passed on from author to author, each picking up the metaphorical ball where the previous writer had left it, thinking the events of 2020 and early 2021 in real time. The guiding theme was the necrotic characteristics of capitalism (hence “necrocapitalism”) that, despite always inherent to this mode of production and its world system since its emergence, were being exposed in different ways by COVID-19. While it was a “mask on” moment for individuals navigating the plague, it was a “mask off” moment for all of capitalism’s depredations. Although we were clear that capitalism’s mask of liberal civility had been “off” for a long time in the global peripheries, along with the peripheries in its very centre (i.e. the permanent domestic warfare levelled at Black and Indigenous people in the US and Canada, etc.), we wanted to chart the ways in which the pandemic revealed that capitalism was incapable of doing what its propaganda persistently claimed, to provide a better and freer life for its citizens — a persistent claim that required it to always deny its mass graveyards, to lie about its global market, to pretend that it goes to war for peace.
Early on we worried that the project would devolve into incoherence. After all, even though there was a shared radical anti-capitalist politics, we did not as a whole possess identical ideological commitments. We were something of a united front of authors, albeit a close united front. Another worry was that the project would grind to a halt early into the pandemic with writers unable to produce entries in relation to previous entries. Both worries proved to be erroneous. When we decided to terminate the project and transform it into a book we discovered that it possessed a stunning coherence, unfolding as a theoretical journal of a year of plague under capitalist violence. Throughout the process we generated hundreds of pages of entries: at the height of this work we were putting out entries weekly until things slowed down (because of the exhaustion of life under capitalism) and it reached its end point right when the vaccines were being rolled out. After collectively editing it into book form, we could confidently say that this project was unique because we had produced a radical record of a year under the (necro)capitalist management of pandemic.
Moreover, our project was wagered against hasty attempts to theorize the pandemic that were rushed to print in early 2020. Indeed, right at the beginning of the project we witnessed slapdash attempts to think the pandemic according to simplistic “biopolitical” conceptions, the worst of which was Agamben’s anti-science essays, and so we decided to incorporate a critique of this kind of impressionistic theorizing from the get-go. Our intention was to investigate how a pandemic capitalism would function over time, how it would be challenged in these times, and how the challenges would conceive of themselves. Such an investigation, we understood, needed to also address capitalism’s imperialist dimension as well as, in the case of where we lived and wrote (the US and Canada), its settler-colonial nature. Treating such hasty theorizations of the pandemic as epiphenomenal, we preferred to focus on the concrete and interrelated aspects of capitalism, imperialism, and settler-colonialism wherein state responses to COVID-19 were deployed.
At the same time, however, we were able to stay abreast of the (sometimes hastily) published literature regarding pandemic and uncovered some gems: Angela Mitropoulos’ Pandemonia and Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s Epidemic Empire. The former was a strong text because Mitropoulos had previously examined the relation between contagion and capitalism. The latter was equally strong, and historically informative, because it was initially written before the pandemic, and thus Raza Kolb charted the ways in which epidemic was conceived by early capitalist imperialism, with the kind of rigour that belied the too-quick analyses of chic academic theorists rushing out to capitalize on this protracted event. (Also Raza Kolb was kind enough to grace us with a blurb for the published version of the book!)
n the early days of the project Revolutionary Left Radio invited us to be interviewed. One of our members chose to represent the group, revealed that we were a collective and not a single individual writing under an obvious pseudonym (“M.I. Asma”, the name we retained for the publication), and responded to the interview based on the notes the rest of the collective sent him. Listeners were intrigued. One even sketched a picture with their notes of that podcast. We had piqued the interest of listeners and found an audience: it seemed clear we were honing in on an important critique of the pandemic.
For a while, the project had something of a manic output. Weekly entries all throughout the spring and summer of 2020. What we were seeking to diagnose––the always present violence of capitalism that received a different register under pandemic––was affected by uprisings and the response of state policy. At the same time, however, we were also affected. Aside from cabin fever there were new stressful methods of work, lack of work, illness, and (for some of us) our own experiences with state violence. It was not as if we could be outside of the phenomena with which we were engaging. As individuals subjected to the pandemic and the state’s response to the pandemic, we each experienced it in different ways based on our respective economic and biological health. As different kinds of organizers we were subjected to the rhythms imposed on mass work.
I recall a virtual meeting in the summer of 2020 where, because of the uprisings in the US, one author was unable to make the meeting because she was on the streets and another author had to cut the meeting short because he was about to go out on the streets in his city. We constantly wrote and met within the unfolding dynamics of politics in the hope that this project could contribute something meaningful to this unfolding. We also burned out, dealt with other home and health issues, alongside the stress of work and paying the bills. Which is why our once manic input slowed down, at the end of 2020, reaching its denouement in the early months of 2021. The plague journal encountered a very real plague fatigue, despite having pushed against this fatigue for a year.
Later we would discover that Kwame Holmes had recoined the term (without any evidence he was aware of Banerjee’s coining just as we were not aware of Holmes’ usage at the time) in his 2017 essay “Necrocapitalism, Or, The Value of Black Death” which examined how the US white middle class’s anxiety over property values was reliant on black death. We encountered this 2017 version of the term around the time our project was nearly finished through the accident of a google search.
Before being even aware of Holmes’ 2017 recoining, though, we encountered another recoining midway through the pandemic and after our project had gathered steam: Mark LeVine used the term (apparently under the assumption he had first thought of the neologism since there was no awareness of the other usages, no awareness even of our serial that had already repopularized it) in “From Neoliberalism to Necrocapitalism in 20 Years”. The problem with LeVine’s version of the term, however, was that he was using it to do precisely what we had warned against: to imagine that capitalism had entered a new phase––no longer “neoliberal” but instead “necrocapitalist”––rather than realize that capitalism has always been necrotic.
As Marx noted in Capital, the so-called “rosy dawn” of capitalism was one of brutal violence. Silvia Federici referred to the period of capitalism’s emergence as “an immense concentration camp.” And there has never been any period where capitalism, with its ongoing connection to settler-colonialism and imperialism, when capitalism was not necrocapitalism. Neoliberalism was no exception: with every shift in its market deployment, with every costume it has chosen to wear, the same characteristic of immeasurable violence has persisted. A system based on exploitation, on the law of capitalist accumulation, can be nothing but necrocapitalism. When we fail to grasp this reality, then we end up hoping for a return to a kinder/gentler capitalism that has only ever existed in bourgeois mythology and for some people but at the expense of most of the world.
In any case, what these multiple coinings of the term perhaps reveal is the inescapable revelation that capitalism means death and has always meant death. If the hideous mismanagement of the pandemic by the most powerful capitalist nation-states did not emphasize this truth, then the horrors of capitalist-created climate change that were reinforced at the end of pandemic (record heat waves, towns burned to the ground, an ocean on fire) should surely tell anyone who is not staring at the figurative shadows on the wall in Plato’s story of the cave that capitalism has orientated our entire species towards death.
There have been, of course, many attempted collective writing projects that have fallen apart because those involved could not work with each other. These are also informative because they teach us of the ways in which bourgeois/petty-bourgeois individualism can get in the way of cooperation. Thankfully, we did not have this problem with On Necrocapitalism. For myself, at least, it was a joy to participate in a year long writing conversation with the other participants. I learned so much from their contributions, and how successive entries forced me to think and write when it was my turn to write. Different skills and perspectives were brought to the figurative table, and there were those wondrous times when it felt like multiple thought was condensing to a unity––where I saw others write the same things I would have wanted to write, or draw on the same material I had planned to draw on––and thus the project that I once worried could devolve into chaos before imploding actually thrived.
Personally speaking, I enjoy writing. It is one of the small joys of my life, a meditative activity where I actively think through problematics or just work out the general frustration of existence. I have never believed it exists in a void, because it is always a response and contribution to the social process(es) to which I belong. Such a joy is always conditioned by conversations I have with my partner, friends, colleagues, and comrades. I work out ideas in conversation and debate, I assess and reassess what I have written with those close to me. Hence, collaborative and collective writing is something I have tried to make space for.
Years before this project I worked with Benjanun Sriduangkaew on Methods Devour Themselves, and I learned and grew as a writer and thinker. So working with even more authors to create a chain book was another chance to grow. There is a dynamism in collaborative and collective writing that does not exist, at least not to the same level, when you work on something as the sole author. Although one is not truly alone in a single authored work (due to the social processes one is a member of), there is sometimes a feeling of loneliness, of being shut up in one’s own head, that we often encounter. And while it is the case that sometimes I appreciate these solitary moments of communion, being part of something bigger than oneself is a great feeling. Which should be, of course, why we ought to participate in political movements or revolutionary parties. To become a partisan rather than an individual apart.
And when we write together, just as when we work and organize together, we resubjectivize ourselves into collective beings. We learn from each other, we learn to respect each other, we hopefully figure out how to kill the bourgeois individual within us. Which, in the case of On Necrocapitalism, should be a very meaningful practice. For if there is a hope of escaping the nightmare logic of capitalism then it lies in studious, structured, and collective partisan organizing.
If there is one thing the world’s most powerful capitalist nation-states––those social formations whose current power rests on a history of settler-colonial and imperial violence––are good at, it’s being able to generate various forms of denial even in the face of overwhelming evidence. On the one hand, the denial functions in the grossest manner: the refusal to even consider, for example, the history of slavery in the US as essential to the identity of the US––the censure of the 1619 project, the anger over so-called “Critical Race Theory”, and the legal mandate to prevent any talk of the history of US white supremacy. On the other hand, there is that denial that comes from blaming the unavoidable facts on a reified history: this violence happened in the past because of some bad actors, these bad actors were just products of their time, the present has nothing to with such bad actors. In both cases, and this is what we found extremely interesting in our project, the ongoing and unavoidable violence of multiple capitalist states of affairs is projected on capitalism’s other: it is the anti-capitalists, particularly the history of communism, that are guilty of the greatest evil; ignore the actual history of capitalism and its vast graveyard, focus instead on the cold war propaganda that is in fact a psychological projection of the worst excesses of capitalism!
So how is it, in the midst of a pandemic that was clearly mismanaged by the most powerful capitalist nation-states, that people are still willing to believe that capitalism is “the best of the worse” despite all empirical evidence to the contrary? This was indeed an implicit question in our project. The capitalist imaginary has a powerful purchase on our thoughts, even when it is constantly revealing itself to mean the death of our species. Part of the work of anti-capitalist writers and artists has always been to reveal the truth behind this imaginary, to dispel the ideological fog that functions to normalize capitalist business as usual so as to emphasize that the horrendous violence––what Fanon called “an avalanche of murders”––is this business as usual. While the most oppressed and exploited know this fact instinctively, the imaginary is such that it is easier to think the violence is not baked into the system itself (there is a trend in the US and Canada, for example, of seeing racism as an additive problem that prevents capitalism from being truly “democratic” rather than understanding that it is intrinsic to capitalism) or, isolated without a mass movement, to opt for nihilism.
Thus, any work that functions to dispel this ideological fog can only go so far. For what is needed, more than analyses and diatribes about the state of affairs, are sustainable revolutionary movements that can also provide an alternative to the capitalist imaginary. Such movements can (and have and do!) link “the ruthless criticism of all that exists” with a practice designed to bring about another existence, unleashing another imaginary. The uniqueness of On Necrocapitalism, if it is unique (in a small sense), is that it provided a year’s worth of theoretical journaling against the normalization of the capitalist imaginary––exposing how ludicrous this imaginary was in the face of a pandemic that capitalism could not help but mismanage. Hell, even when vaccines were invented the brakes that capitalist social relations put on medical technology were undeniable: on the one hand an imperialist vaccine apartheid (because Pfizer, Moderna, etc. would rather millions die than lose their patents), and on the other hand a science denialism that capitalist politicians either supported or believed was justifiable because of a warped notion of freedom.
In any case, whatever prolonged/protracted exposure of capitalism’s warped logic that On Necrocapitalism was able to provide is not enough. But, since everyone in the collective was also an organizer, we understood this from the get-go. The project was wagered in the service of anti-capitalist partisan movements. In our first entry we pointed out that we sought to emphasize the aspirations of anti-capitalist movements. In the epilogue we wrote: “This project’s analysis is not enough, which is why it has not pretended to be a replacement for these fragmentary diagnostics [i.e. “biopolitical” and other especial academic analyses] but, instead, a reminder of the living theory of struggle.” And, as should be obvious, “the living theory of struggle” means the theory that originates from and develops within what Marx and Engels called “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
As we wrote in the conclusion: “We must never forget that capitalism will murder, torture, incarcerate, and devour anything and everyone.” And we must also never forget the ways in which people organized, during this pandemic, against state violence and for mutual aid. At the very least On Necrocapitalism functions as a testament of resistance, however limited this resistance was, in a time of capitalist managed medical emergency. If this testament can help in some way, however small, to spur on the development of stronger partisan movements against capitalism, and for a communist imaginary, then so much the better.