The Epoch of the Neganthropocene: Exiting the Toxic Wastelands of Modernity

The Anthropocene is a singular organological epoch inasmuch as it engendered the organological question itself. It is in this way retroactively constituted through its own recognition, where the question this period poses is how to make an exit from its own toxicity in order to enter the curative and care-ful – and in this sense economizing – epoch of the Neganthropocene. What this means in practical terms is that in the Neganthropocene, and on the economic plane, the accumulation of value must exclusively involve those investments that we shall call neganthropic.1

Opening the future again to a sense of newness, to a sense of hope beyond the depredations of our era of death and apocalyptic forebodings is at the heart of Bernard Stiegler’s work. I doubt he would consider himself an optimist, but rather a realist and thereby a cautious pessimist in the sense that gazing toward what is coming at us is not at all clear but closer to that proverbial gesture of Saint Paul: “I see through a mirror darkly…”. That our era has been debt driven, bound to a entropic machine of accumulation and entropic dissipation is assured. Look around you and see the cracks in the seeming reality of this global civilization and one finds not hope but the oldest of fears and horrors: war, famine, disease, corruption, and a planetary civilization on the peak of utter chaos and ruination of the very basis of all life itself. We are marked and stained by our inaction, by out inability to face the universe without us. We live in our local defense leagues (Nations) castigating the rest of the world, fearing its demise, roping and chaining off our artificial borders with security walls of barbed wire or steel cages, dogs and armed soldiers. A bunker civilization that is withdrawing into its shell trying to stave off a nightmare it has itself created through its own economic and social mastery.

To keep us occupied and entertained we are allowed to satirize and demean a cartoon President or other world leaders as part of the Roman Circus of our modern age of mediatainment. As long as you are just passively or actively protesting a non-player on the world stage the real evil can continue on its way doing what it does behind the scenes: ripping and stripping the world of its last remaining resources, enclosing the minds and hearts of the world social in a new enclosure of the commons, putting them so far in debt that they’ll be working for the masters of hundreds of years and passively accepting this as the ‘state of affairs’. Modern slavery has no bars, it’s name is Freedom. All you need to do is conform, bend to the popular will of the elite, the masters of our economic systems who hide their own ignorance within a couched rational and mathematical world of fictions.

The word ‘Neoliberalism’, a cliché that has no meaning anymore, overly used by pundits to the point that its intent is a target that no longer exists in reality but rather in a autonomous mythic world of economics. Book after book speaks of the causes and effects of this supposed system that has brought us into this era of chaotic and planetary collapse. Yet, one reads book after book and discovers no where a vision of how to exit this era and its toxicity.

Bernard Stiegler will offer a vision of a transition from the toxic wastelands of the Anthropocene, an era of entropic decay and waste, dissipation and horror in his latest work Automatic Society: The Future of Work. This notion of the Anthropocene which was first used by Soviet environmentalists in the 1960’s was popularized by Paul J. Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behavior on Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch. As Stiegler tells it the  question of the Anthropocene, which bears within it its own overcoming, and bears the structure of a promise, is emerging at the very moment when, on the other hand, we are witnessing the establishment of that complete and general automatization made possible by the industry of reticulated digital traces, even though the latter seems to make this promise untenable. To hold fast, that is, to hold good to this promise, means beginning, precisely, from those neganthropic possibilities opened up by automation itself: it is to think this industry of reticulation as a new epoch of work, and as the end of the epoch of ‘employment’, given that the latter is ultimately and permanently compromised by complete and general automatization. And it is to think this industry as the ‘transvaluation’ of value, whereby ‘labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value’, and where the value of value becomes neganthropy. Only in this way can and must the passage from the Anthropocene to the Neganthropocene be accomplished. (AS, KL 678)

This old Marxian dream of the end of work is at the heart of both the toxic theorists of modern capitalism, and also of those like Stiegler who would harness its energies not in the name of entropic accumulation and dissipation but rather in a new creative society based on neganthropic principles. To envision such a post-Nietzschean world of transition into a true transvaluation of values would indeed be a feat of stupendous effort and imagination, reason and a logic of radical labour and love (caring). Is it possible?

Jehu of The Real Movement blog spells out much of this in his hypothesis that describes what happens when capitalism finally collapses premised on the assumption that this collapse can occur in two separate and distinct phases: a lower phase, which we can refer to as the collapse of production based on exchange value; and a higher phase, which I will call the collapse of production based on wage labor. These two phases more or less reflect the dual character of capitalist commodity production: that capital is a form of commodity production which specifically aims to produce surplus value. (Read: Towards a hypothesis of the final collapse of capitalism). What’s interesting as Jehu points out that Marx himself in all fifty or so volumes of his collected works never predicts the collapse of capitalism, only the specific “collapse of production based on exchange value, i.e., the conditions of simple commodity production” (Jehu).

He’ll point out another passage in Das Capital Vol 1, Chapter 32 where Marx predicts the demise of capitalist private property, and yet as Jehu maintains “Marx never actually says the proletariat expropriates capitalist private property; instead, he limits his prediction to the expropriation of capitalist private property by some unnamed subject”. As Jehu in another section explains it,

In Capital, (v1, c32), Marx is looking ahead to a major event that had two possible outcomes. The first, more familiar outcome for us is a proletarian socialist revolution that overthrows the existing state. The second, less well understood and almost never discussed outcome is that the state is forced by events to expropriate capitalist private property and undertake the direction of production, to function as the national capitalist, the direct exploiter of the proletarians. This second possible outcome is what Luxemburg labeled barbarism.

We’ve all heard about the first of these two outcomes, but very little about the second in Marxist literature. For me as I see what is happening in the world today it makes more and more sense that the plundering of market capitalism and its degradation of the ecological and social fabric of our planet will force the governing powers of nations to put an end to this exploitative corruption. We know this will go under the banner of saving the planet, etc., a new marketed environmental horror story will be driven into the psyche of the mass minds of all citizens who will in seeking security from the coming devastation gladly allow their lives to become enmeshed in the local and global tyrannies of the State to come.

Jehu for his part explains that his “hypothesis depends on the claim that production based on exchange value, what is commonly referred to as simple commodity production, can collapse without necessarily leading to the collapse of what I have here called production based on wage labor, i.e., capital proper”. As we see in the movement of capitalist technocrats of our era and their bid to oust workers from production and replace them over the coming decades with automation and intelligent machines that a new form of capitalist takeover is in the offing. That humanity itself as surplus labour and value is no longer a factor in this future. The vast underemployed mass of humans will no longer be needed, and will be excluded from the world of these capitalist schemes. The end of wage labor is assured, but does that not also mean the end of the wage laborer as well. Are we as workers becoming expendable? If so is it in their future a world cleansed and purified of the vast majority of the human population? Are these fascistic tendencies about to produce the very apocalyptic dreams of ancient monotheisms at the behest of the very powers who would exclude us from our jobs?

Either way the aspect left out of Marx is the collapse of the environment itself as one of the very retroactive forces that will bring about the State takeover of private property. As the environment (if you accept the Sixth Extinction and Environmental collapse theories of scientists around the world) begins to show more and more extreme collapse through deforestation, ice cap melting, gases rising from the ocean floors, the ocean conveyor belt slowing, the threat of so many shortages of rain…. etc., one will be offered solutions and security from the State. At this time humanity will either take on its own revolution and take the bull by the horns, or it will go passive and allow dictators and tyrants to enact martial law and impose dark legislation of social and political control over the planet and its resources. The future is uncertain and we see a crisis blooming all around us on this late great planet earth. Stiegler says there is an alternative…

As he explains it since 1993, a new global technical system has been put in place. It is based on digital tertiary retention and it constitutes the infrastructure of an automatic society to come. We are told that the data economy, which seems to be concretizing itself as the economic dynamic generated by this infrastructure, is the inevitable destiny of this society. We shall show, however, that the ‘destiny’ of this society of hyper-control is not a destination: it leads nowhere other than to nihilism, that is, to the negation of knowledge itself. And he will show, first with Jonathan Crary (24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep), then with Thomas Berns and Antoinette Rouvroy (Human Genes and Neoliberal Governance), why this automatic society to come will be able to constitute a future – that is, a destiny of which the negentropic destination is the Neganthropocene – only on the condition of overcoming this ‘data economy’, which is in reality the diseconomy of a ‘dis-society’. (AS, KL 690)

I’ll continue this series in another essay tomorrow. Stay tuned.

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 668-673). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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