The Anthropocene: Platonov and the Tragedy of the Commons

One should keep one’s head down and not revel in life: our time is better and more serious than blissful enjoyment. Anyone who revels in it will certainly be caught and perish…
………..– Andrey Platonov, On the First Socialist Tragedy

McKenzie Wark in his latest work Molecular Red: A Theory for the Anthropocene tells us that the Anthropocene is a “catalog of the reasons why the ever-expanding commodifcation of everything is on a collision course with planetary limits”.1 Of all the authors he explicates it is Andrey Platonov as Wark reminds us who has a masterful intuition of what the Anthropocene future is going to be like. (Wark, p. 31) He’ll provide a short story of Platonov’s On the First Socialist Tragedy (translated by Tony Wood) as an opening toward a series of meditations of the impact of humans in the era of the Anthropocene. The Guardian talking of Robert Chandler’s translation of The Foundation Pit would say of Platonov that Stalin called him scum. Sholokov, Gorky, Pasternak, and Bulgakov all thought he was the bee’s knees. But when Andrey Platonov died in poverty, misery and obscurity in 1951, no one would have predicted that within half a century he would be a contender for the title as Russia’s greatest 20th-century prose stylist.

We now have several of those works due to Chandler’s latest translations: The Foundation Pit, Happy Moscow, Soul: And Other Stories, and The Fierce and Beautiful World. Yet, as Wark points out his great work of Chevengur, is out of print, although a link to an older translation can be found here. In the story Wark provides Platonov makes an observation rather than a judgement in the sense that he pondered the way in which humans and nature depend on one another, saying, “One should stand with the ordinary people in their patient socialist work, and that’s all.” (Wark, p. 32) This emphasis on “should” rather than “must” seems a qualification of one who is not a worker of the earth, but rather like Platonov a worker of the pen. This reminded me of that great early poem of Seamus Heaney Digging:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.3

Heaney forms both the memory and the solidarity with history and a mood, a consciousness of this past as a shaping of work and life rooted in the earth, in the round of daily living in the environment touching, knowing, being in the climate of the land, of digging as natural and unnatural, as human process and thought, of love and a relationship based on sensibility: touch, sight, smell, sound, taste… a life in which the earth is not just an abstract sign of life, but is life itself, lived and attested; affirmed in both its form as spade and pen, work and thought – the dialectical interplay of temporal and generational existence.

As Platonov in the story will have his character state, this “mood and consciousness correspond to the way nature is constructed. Nature is not great, it is not abundant. Or it is so harshly arranged that it has never bestowed its abundance and greatness on anyone. Tis is a good thing, otherwise – in historical time – all of nature would have been plundered, wasted, eaten up, people would have revelled in it down to its very bones…” (Wark, p. 32) One would like to know what the word that “constructed” replaced might have been in the original Russian. This notion of a correlation between affect, awareness, and nature as a constructed operation, as a decision or abstraction, a distancing of thought from its object, a taking up into thought the affective relations into intuition and intellect seems to deaden our relation to the natural, and yet to also give us back a way of mapping a cartography or geophilosophical relation to the location of the natural in our lives. And, the emphasis by Platonov that nature has its own powers of construction as well, this “harshly arranged” pattern that provides a break, a defense against utility and use, against the overextended depletion of natural resources: nature’s “abundance and greatness”. Otherwise as he admits we – as humans, would have already brought the good earth down to its bare bones, stripped it of its treasures, exploited it to the nth degree. Or as Platonov states it:

If the physical world had not had its one law – in fact, the basic law: that of the dialectic – people would have been able to destroy the world completely in a few short centuries. (Wark, p. 32)

For Platonov the “dialectic” “is probably an expression of miserliness, of the daunting harshness of nature’s construction…” (Wark, p. 32). Again the use of “construction” as if the natural is a product or productive within the correlative operation between itself and humans. Of course this is where he comes to the major point of the story, that the earth is being “overloaded” and taxed to the point of exhaustion: “a tragic picture, because the real historical work is being done not on the whole earth, but in a small part of it, with enormous overloading” (Wark, p. 33).

This will lead him to make another observation, one in which ‘technology’ is the determining factor in this ‘overloading’ process in degradation of humanity and the earth: “the truth, in my view, lies in the fact that ‘technology . . . decides everything’” (Wark, p. 33).  This sense that technology is a force, a power, a disposition that ‘decides everything’. What does it decide? Is it humans or technology that is the master here? Or is mastery to be done away with for good? As he’ll tell us it is technology that has brought about the tragedy of the environment we see around us – what many now are terming the Anthropocene (humans and technology as a force and power). He stipulate what he means by technology, saying,

if by technology we understand not only the complex of man-made instruments of production, but also the organization of society, solidly founded on the technology of production, and even ideology. (Wark, p. 33)

So technology is technics: the complex of tools, organization of society, production, and ideology. As Jaques Ellul once observed technics as a principle can be defined by its refusal to tolerate moral judgments. It is absolutely independent of them and eliminates them from its domain. Technique never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality.
Here, then, is one of the elements of weakness of this point of view. It does not perceive technique’s rigorous autonomy with respect to morals; it does not see that the infusion of some more or less vague sentiment of human welfare cannot alter it. Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians. This attitude supposes further that technique evolves with some end in view, and that this end is human good. Technique is totally irrelevant to this notion and pursues no end, professed or unprofessed.4

In the above the thrust is that technology has become through the complex of technics, autonomous and determinant in both human and natural contexts. This is the thrust of the Antrhoposcene, not that humans themselves are to blame, but that this dialectic development of social relations between humans, technology, and technics over the course of natural history and the rise of civilization has developed to the point that this comples, hyperobject, or hyperorganism is now out of balance with the environment that sustains it. At the time Platonov wrote this he believed this process was tragic but not part of some endgame heading toward apocalypse:

The external world is protected from us by the dialectic. Therefore, though it seems like a paradox: the dialectic of nature is the greatest resistance to technology and the enemy of humankind. Technology is intended for and works towards the overturning or softening of the dialectic. So far it has only modestly succeeded, and so the world still cannot be kind to us. (Wark, p. 33)

So what happens when this resistance is overcome? When technics with technology gains total master over natural process? At the time of his writing Platonov still held out hope, believing that humans would “still obtain what it needed from the waste and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we are making our way inside the world, and in response it is pressing down upon us with equivalent force” (Wark, p. 34).

We’ve entered the pit too far now, and the earth is at war with humanity, the balance has been upended and as climatologists tell us over and over we are facing a vast array of insurmountable obstacles in the coming century and centuries. We’ve been told by environmentalists for sixty years that we need to begin doing somethin to curtail our impact or face extinction as a species along with most of the biosphere itself. As of yet most of our political measures have been little more than fictional agreements to placate media and the elite rulers of finance, and governmental regulation and control. For the rest of us the truth is much grimmer, the truth is that the future is a bleak zone of waste, decay, and bare and futile existence. Why? Because our impact has already started processes that have become autonomous and independent of humanity, both technological and natural.

For those who have studied it there is no need to reiterate the obvious, for those who are blinded by their political religions to disbelieve and deny the climatic apocalypse ahead of us there is probably no hope so I want even try. Why should I? One reads conservative and even progressive rhetoric everywhere in mainstream politics over the climatic era of the Anthropocene that we are key artisans and players. Listening, reading, and trying to convince the believer that his beliefs are fictions founded in dust is without doubt the most difficult thing in our time. The believers of the earth of no matter what stripe are blind. Am I blind for seeking out the scientific models and probabilistic and statistical factiticity of massive data being churned out by places like ClimateCentral, NASA, IPCC, etc.. As NASA reported the consensus of the truth of climate change is overwhelming among scientists:

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals1 show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The following is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.

Future effects as reported by the National Climate Assessment provides an overview which states the obvious: “This National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.” Going on to say,

Scientists who study climate change confirm that these observations are consistent with significant changes in Earth’s climatic trends. Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation, like the rest of the world, is warming. Precipitation patterns are changing, sea level is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events are increasing. Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities.

It’s this impact that is being termed the Anthropocene. Some term it in harsher terms as the Capitalocene. Donna Haraway has a new vimeo video “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble” on this theme. As well as an essay here. Also Jason Moore has a three part series ANTHROPOCENE OR CAPITALOCENE?


  1. Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso (April 21, 2015)
  2. ON THE FIRST SOCIALIST TRAGEDY by Andrey Platonov, translated by Tony Wood
  3. Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.
  4. The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1964. London: Jonathan Cape, 1965. Rev. ed.: New York: Knopf/Vintage, 1967

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