The outbreak of SARS Coronovirus 2 or Covid-19 proceeds an escalation of recent epidemics and proto-pandemics: notably, H5N1 or Avian influenza, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. We are not currently experiencing a pandemic, Mike Davis (2020) pronounces, we are living in an age of pandemics. Rob Wallace (2020) explains this trend as the consequence of interrelated changes in economic geography and ecological geographies: a widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange that is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities; with subsequent changes in the ecologies of host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests, which are now transported to peri-urban regions with high concentrations of human bodies. Traversing a globally integrated air traffic network, pathogens previously not on the global stage are being brought to it.
Davis (2020), citing a study from Science magazine, illustrates the context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa (currently the fastest urbanizing area in the world). The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein, however, commencing in the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced this biomass. Concurrently, multinational logging companies have increased their operations; to keep their costs down, they hire professional hunters to kill mammals in their path. With fish becoming too expensive for West African city dwellers, the population has turned to the consumption of bushmeat (originally just practiced in the logging camps) as the major source of protein. In sum, this widening commerce of bushmeat hunting alongside the destruction of rainforest have generated new viral exposures and pathways to humans of previously isolated pathogens.
In this essay, using the case studies of HIV/AIDS and SARS, I explore the nexus between capitalist political economy, nature, and emergent infectious diseases; concluding that, without radical change to how we organise and run our world, our future will be locked into this trajectory of escalating pandemics.
HIV-1 and HIV-2 originate from the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses (SIV) of chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Central and West Africa (Honigsbaum, 2019), with the probable zoonotic leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908 (Quammen, 2013). From here, the virus travelled. At this moment, put in historical context, previous epidemiological dead ends were no longer so: the virus travelled because of changes in conditions of existence propelled by a capital-fuelled colonial age. Mark Honigsbaum (2019) points to the emergence of steamship transportation and road and railway construction during the colonial period of the Congo, and the relentless pursuit of profit by logging and timber companies, intersecting with social and cultural phenomenon (bushmeat hunting and consumption, and prostitution by the labour camps of railway and timber companies), as the central early drivers in the journey of HIV/AIDS.
While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion began in the late nineteenth century. Given the need of capital to self-expand and thus the impetus for greater mobility of both capital and labour, the 1892 steamship service from Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (later Kisangi) and 1898 Matadi-Kinshasa railway (linking the port of Matadi to Léopoldville) provided geographical connectivity and concentration of populations previously separated. With a consequent influx of labour migrants and Belgian administrators, a rapidly urbanizing Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, running domestic flight services and by 1936 a direct international flight route to Brussels. Further geographical connectivity and concentration of capital and labour came under French colonial administration, notably, the construction of the Congo-Ocean railroad in the 1920s, which – cutting through forest – brought labourers into rural territories home to the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses. Once built, this railroad provided a constant flow of Africans and Europeans between Brazzaville (the new capital of the French colonial federation) through Léopoldville to Pointe-Noire at the coast. What’s more, road construction through the Congo Basin by timber companies pushed bushmeat hunters deeper into the forest and encouraged the growth of prostitution near the labour camps (Honigsbaum, 2019). One way or another, through new viral pathways that were new transport pathways driven by capital accumulation, by the 1920s, Léopoldville was home to HIV.
Both Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) draw on research by Jacques Pepin to explain how the virus amplifies from here into an eventual global pandemic: sex and medical technology – specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilized hypodermic needles and reusable syringes in public and humanitarian health campaigns in Africa, and blood banks and transfusion services – were the key amplifiers of HIV. By the 1920s Léopoldville had a large male labour force, with economic migrants discouraged by the Belgian colonial administration from bringing their families with them; consequently, men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread (Honigsbaum, 2019). The virus likely amplified through a campaign by the Congolese Red Cross which established a clinic in 1929 in Léopoldville to treat sexually transmitted diseases; this campaign ran throughout in the 1930s and 1940s and peaked, in terms of the number of administered injections, in 1953 (Quammen, 2013). Another possible amplification was during the 1930s though the vaccination campaigns along the railways against yaws and sleeping sickness, and against malaria in southern Cameroon (Honigsbaum, 2019).
HIV-1 group M subtype B, around 1966, travels from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) again draw on the work of Pepin for a plausible answer as to how. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution (Honigsbaum, 2019). Another outcome was the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class. This vacuum of labour supply was addressed by campaigns to bring in skilled labour from elsewhere. Overseen by the WHO and UNESCO, recruits came from Haiti in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s however, the political instability of the state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité – to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of colonialism and Western influences – drove many of this labour force back to Haiti. It would have taken just one of these returnees to have carried HIV with them. In January 1972, The New York Times broke a story of the commodification and export of Haitian human blood plasma and a political economy involving both US based capital and the Haitian government. The article states:
“PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 26 – An American‐owned company here is buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 liters of it every month to the United States. […] Hemo Caribbean is owned by Joseph B. Gorinstein, stockbroker with interests in New York and Miami. He has a 10‐year contract with the Haitian Government that was negotiated with President Francois Duvalier, who died last April. Werner H. Thill, the company’s technical director, said that the Haitian Government received no money from Hemo Caribbean. Reliable sources here say that the principal agent between the Government and Hemo Caribbean was Luckner Cambronne, the Minister of Interior and National Defense, who is said to be one of the most influential persons here. […] Mr. Thill says that applicants are rejected if they are known to have hepatitis, but he adds that he is not especially concerned about those who may slip through the screening process with venereal disease or malaria. The freezing process used on the plasma “kills those bacteria,” he says. The Haitians, many in rags and without shoes, crowd into Hemo Caribbean six days week from 6:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. They spend about an hour and a half to two hours in screening and actually giving blood. […] The plasma is frozen and shipped to the United States by Air Haiti, Mr. Cambronne’s airline.”
“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx (1867) tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Luckner Cambronne, because of his central exploitative role in the selling of blood plasma of Haitian donors to the United States, was widely coined both in Haiti and overseas, “The Vampire of the Caribbean” (Davison, 2006). Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travels from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travels to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Australia; it also travels back into Africa (Quammen, 2013). Since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died (World Health Organization, 2020).
A popular narrative (as represented through Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On) that either politically stigmatizes or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality is only one part of the historical story, specifically, how the virus amplified once it arrived in the United States. In the wider historical narrative I have relayed, capital is a leading actor. Marx (1857) observes in Grundrisse:
“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”
From possibly just one human exposure in southeastern Cameroon, HIV/AIDS made its way into and later out of Kinshasa through the new transportation routes of a colonial era and a globalizing era; because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no more and new viral pathways were generated.
In the period since 1979 known as opening and reform, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen the entry of foreign capital into the country. Through the 1980s, especially the 1990s, and into the early millennium, China has experienced a staggering pace and degree of economic growth and urbanization. Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, has been at the centre of this rapid capitalist transformation. Home to the earliest Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, and to the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, Guangdong is now the largest provincial economy and population in China, with Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen global megacities and the country’s top two cities for GDP output. This has driven two ecological effects: the development of industrial-scale poultry farms to supply Guangdong’s huge labour force, growing from an estimated 700 million chickens in 1997 to, by 2008, one billion so-called high quality broiler chickens annually; and the orientation of smaller livestock producers and rice farmers to fattening domestic chickens and ducks to sell in “wet markets” that exist on the edges of Guangdong’s urban areas (Honigsbaum, 2019). Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. Davis (2005) explains:
“Thanks especially to the prevalence of wet markets in the cities, the urbanization of Guangdong has probably intensified rather than decreased microbial traffic between humans and animals. As income has risen with industrial employment, the population is eating more meat and less rice and vegetables. […] An extraordinary concentration of poultry […] coexists with high human densities, large numbers of pigs, and ubiquitous wild birds. […] Moreover, as the urban footprint has expanded and farm acreage has contracted, a fractal pattern of garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact. […] Guangdong is also a huge market for wild meat.”
Quammen (2013), referencing Karl Taro Greenfeld, observes that the wild animal trade within the Pearl River Delta is less to do with limited resources, need, or ancient traditions, and more attributable to the capitalist boom and related rise in conspicuous consumption. The contemporary Era of Wild Flavour, most prevalent in southern China, draws from earlier traditions and goes beyond them; Wild Flavour (yewei) is regarded as a way of gaining “face”, prosperity, and good luck. To supply Guangdong’s wet markets to meet the demand of a burgeoning affluent class frequenting the Wild Flavour restaurants of the province’s cities, there has been an increase in the volume of wild animal trade, with greater cross-border commerce (both legal and illegal) from other South East Asia countries (Vietnam and Laos, for example) into southern China and a rise in captive bred animals on unregulated small farms (Honigsbaum, 2019; Quammen, 2013). This is what Mike Davis, in 2005, coined the monster at our door, and, in light of SARS Coronavirus 2, states as the entirely familiar monster that has now walked through our front door (Davis, 2020). He elaborates, super urbanizing animal populations by factory farming is artificially creating the optimal conditions for the emergence of newly infectious diseases, speeding up the evolution of new strains, and guaranteeing the advent of pandemics (Davis, 2020). Following the work of Rob Wallace, an article from the Chinese Chuǎng journal (2020) argues that emergent infectious diseases arising in and out of China are best understood through a wider economic geography innate to capitalism, specifically, “the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”, which:
“provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.”
The exceptional coming together of multiple species, which would not have otherwise crossed paths in nature yet are now stacked up together in crowded conditions in dense urban environments, is, as Quammen (2013: 189) puts it, “zoological bedlam”. It should be of no surprise then that a wet market of Guangzhou was the source of the zoonotic leap of SARS in 2002, and a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province in south central China, the source of the spillover of SARS Coronavirus 2 in 2019. The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. While SARS had a higher mortality rate, a critical difference between SARS and SARS Coronavirus 2 is the latter’s higher viral load prior to the onset of symptoms, which makes the effort to contain its spread much more difficult.
In narrating two stories about HIV/AIDS and SARS, I want to warn against geographically limiting one’s attention to Africa and Asia when thinking about pandemic threat. Instead, a focus on the intersection of the local and the global is key: local conditions of existence and capitalist political economy shape viral evolution, thus have meaning in explaining and predicting emergent infectious diseases, but the local intimately intersects with the global networks and processes of capitalist political economy. Eskew and Carlson (2020: e216) note, “due to globalisation, industrial agriculture, and the ubiquity of viral biodiversity, a pandemic can emerge practically anywhere.” For instance, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which originated from a pig farm in the United States. At the same time, influenza is also emergent, as Wallace (2016: 29) states, “by way of a globalized network of corporate poultry production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve”. Furthermore, in the context of the biosecurity of a globalized agribusiness, in which, for example, mass vaccination of poultry is itself generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza (Wallace, 2016), a myopic focus on Africa and Asia takes our attention away from the fact that richer countries “routinely outsource their biodiversity threats to other nations” (Eskew and Carlson, 2020: e215). Or, as David Harvey (2010: 3) remarks, “capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically”. At all scales, states and capitals are involved in the covering up and downplaying of emergent infectious diseases because pathogens are “enmeshed” within “the political economy of the business of food” (Wallace, 2016:48). Moves by the World Health Organization to a new system of nomenclature, away from specifying geographic or animal origin, is precisely because of political pressure by powerful states and industries (Wallace, 2016).
There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The Anthropocene, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogenous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations, which, as Andreas Malm recognizes, re-naturalizes ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition (see Kunkel, 2017). Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, cited in Verdansky, 2019). The problem is capitalism, as such the solution is a global system change that has at its centre a “socialised humanity” that “govern[s] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power” (ibid). If we are to find ourselves out of a current trajectory of escalating pandemics, we need a socialist politics that is radical and visionary:
“The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature. […] It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.”” (Marx, 1844)
Chuǎng (2020) “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China”, http://chuangcn.org/2020/02/social-contagion/
Davis, Mike (2020) “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics”, The Dig podcast.
Davis, Mike (2005) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The New Press: London.
Davison, Phil (2006) “Obituary: Luckner Cambronne”. Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/luckner-cambronne-418865.html
Eskew, Evan A and Carlson, Colin J (2020) “Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness”. The Lanset, Volume 4, Issue 6, e215-e216, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30123-6/fulltext
Harvey, David (2010) “RSA: The Crisis of Capitalism”, https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-lecture-david-harvey-transcript.pdf
Honigsbaum, Mark (2019) The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. Hurst & Company: London.
Kunkel, Benjamin (2017) “The Capitalocene”. London Review of Books, 39(5), 22-28.
Marx, Karl (1867) Capital: Volume One, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm
Marx, Karl (1857) Grundrisse, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch10.htm
Marx, Karl (1844) On The Jewish Question, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
Quammen, David (2013) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Vintage Books: London.
Severo, Richard (1972) “Impoverished Haitians Sell Plasma for Use in the U.S.” The New York Times, 28th January 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/28/archives/impoverished-haitians-sell-plasma-for-use-in-the-us.html
Vernadsky, Paul (2019) “Marx and the environment”, Workers’ Liberty: Reason in Revolt, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2019-10-09/marx-and-environment
Wallace, Rob (2020) “How Global Agriculture Grew a Pandemic”, Smarty Pants podcast.
Wallace, Rob (2016) Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Monthly Review Press: New York.
Iceland, Geography, and Biophilia
My child-like excitement for an impending university geography field trip to Iceland has led me to exploring the concept of biophilia. The distinct lure of Iceland feels like a spiritual calling to the wonder and beauty of the natural world. My excitement reminds me of the draw to studying geography: a love of the world in its full human and natural dimensions. Mine is a spiritual and political love that deplores inequality and poverty, injustice, exploitation of humans and the environment, despoliation and mindless plunder, and the ultimate betrayal of our custodianship of planet Earth, otherwise known as the potentially catastrophic era of the Anthropocene. Specifically, mine is a love for what the human species, all living beings, and our shared home of Earth could be and should be, against the harm wrought to us all by capitalism. My imminent visit to Iceland is a rekindling of my original love for geography and a journey into the meaning of biophilia. This journey starts with Icelander Björk’s album “Biophilia” and proceeds to the writings of Edward O. Wilson and Erich Fromm.
Björk’s album “Biophilia”, released in 2011, was the outcome of what had been happening in Iceland during that time, from the financial crisis to an environmental movement against the building of five aluminium factories: “on so many different levels”, she says, “there was this message that all the old system don’t work anymore, you’ve got to clear your table and start from scratch” (Björk 2011a). The album is “about connecting the dots, it’s not so much about that each thing is original, it’s more about building bridges between things that haven’t had bridges between them before, like nature and technology, and like atoms and the galaxy” (Björk 2011b). In one sense, Björk’s “Biophilia” is a product of what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1972) termed topophilia, our affective bond to place which is born from our experiences and circumstances: “being brought up in Iceland I have always had a relationship with nature, before I even knew that that’s not common, living in a capital in Europe but you’re still surrounded by mountains and ocean”; while walking to and from school, “I started mapping out my melodies to landscapes”; at music school from aged five to fifteen, “I was being introduced to the classical canon, Beethoven and Bach, and finding some of it interesting but a lot of it not really matching my own strong experience […] and also being a girl in the 70s in Iceland, I mean this was like for girls in Germany in the 1700s! I wanted musicology for girls, Icelandic girls in the twentieth century” (Björk 2011b).
The word biophilia is commonly attributed to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, namely, to his book Biophilia published in 1984, which was followed by an edited collection titled The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993). For Wilson (1993: 31), biophilia “is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. He makes the case for a hereditary biophilia that has developed through gene-culture coevolution, and calls upon psychologists and other academics to urgently investigate, in the context of the natural environment, what “will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased” (Wilson, 1993: 35). Wilson’s (1993: 38-39) biophilia is a central part of a new environmental ethics, which, while acknowledging the utilitarian potential and material value of wild species, pleas for consideration of “the hereditary needs of our own species” in which the biodiversity of life has “immense aesthetic and spiritual value”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, the environmentalist scholar David W. Orr offers a more radical agenda, calling for a biophilia revolution. On closer examination, his revolution is an incremental set of demands with a left-tinged anti-globalisation, localism, and patriotism, which cuts against a sense of biophilia as a global relationship to humankind and planet Earth; indeed, he confesses, “I do not know whether it is possible to love the planet or not” (Orr, 1993: 432).
Despite the popular association of biophilia with Edward O. Wilson, it was in fact the humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who first introduced the term, explicitly in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and implicitly in The Sane Society (1956) and Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Like Wilson, Fromm considers biophilia – the love of life – as having a biological grounding, specifically, as an innate tendency in all living beings to preserve life and to fight death. But for Fromm, biophilia is also more than this, it is an innate tendency to integrate and to unite; or, to paraphrase Björk, to build bridges. Unlike Wilson, Fromm’s basis for studying biophilia is not biology but the conditions of existence that shape human beings as fundamentally social beings and the capitalist conditions of existence that estrange us from this basic need for connection.
Before I embark into the world of Fromm’s biophilia, which, I argue, offers us a critical theoretical basis for a rallying call for ecological sovereignty, I contextualise this call within a particular framing of the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century.
Anthropocene versus Capitalocene
The Anthropocene (from the Greek work “anthropos” meaning human being) is the term designated to the thesis that human activity has tipped the Earth into a new geological age. On the present vogue of the Anthropocene, Benjamin Kunkel (2017: 22-23) writes:
“It expresses […] an awareness that environmental change of the most durable significance is taking place as we speak, with unaccustomed speed. (Little besides a giant asteroid or a nuclear war could alter the surface of the earth faster and more completely.) […] the Anthropocene condenses ‘into a single word’, as Davies says, ‘a gripping and intuitive story about human influences on the planet’. It designates a contemporary situation in which humanity, accidentally or deliberately, engineers the planet’s condition, and then sets this present moment in a span of time stretching decades, centuries or millennia into past and future. […] What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”
While intended as a rallying call, Kunkel (2017: 23) identifies arguments that the Anthropocene is also “a watchword of despair”. Reviewing Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm’s (2015) Fossil Capital, he summates their critiques of the Anthropocene and Moore’s alternative thesis of the Capitalocene:
“Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogenous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. […] Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’ Malm […] locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is ‘relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. […] ‘Capitalism in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.” (Kunkel, 2017: 23)
As I will go on to illustrate, Fromm’s concept of biophilia is grounded in a comprehension of capitalist social relations in which humanity is neither individually autonomous nor a sovereign political bloc but is instead removed from its social relationship to other living beings and to nature. Moreover, for Fromm, there is nothing natural about the antithesis of biophilia; as such, there is no inherent human trait underpinning capitalism that has led us into the Anthropocene. Vis-à-vis the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century, Fromm’s distinctly socialist biophilia is an urgently needed rallying cry against the Capitalocene.
Fromm’s socialist Biophilia
“Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”” (Fromm, 1961: 59)
i. Social beings, total beings, and productive life
For Fromm, it is a fundamental human need to connect with living beings:
“The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfilment of which [our] sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the word.” (Fromm, 1956: 30)
Furthermore, as humans we search for meaning to our existence and desire transcendence: all our “passions and strivings […] are attempts to find an answer to [our] existence” (Fromm, 1956: 29). In this respect we are faced with two conflicting tendencies, to love and to create, and/or to hate and to destroy:
“Creation and destruction, love and hate, are not two instincts which exist independently. They are both answers to the same need for transcendence, and the will to destroy must rise when the will to create cannot be satisfied. However, the satisfaction of the need to create leads to happiness; destructiveness to suffering […].” (Fromm, 1956: 38)
This need for relatedness and transcendence has no “physiological substrata” but rather is based on our primary driver as a species-being, the human situation: “the total human personality in its interaction with the world, nature and [human beings]; it is the human practice of life as it results from the conditions of human existence” (Fromm, 1956: 70).
Fromm recognises that our spiritual health flourishes when our conditions of existence provide ‘freedom to’, not simply ‘freedom from’. This freedom to allows for the total human personality to grow, as based on our relation to each other, the world, and oneself. Here he draws upon Marx’s notion of ‘total man’ [sic]: whose “independence and freedom” are founded on “the act of self-creation”, which is achieved when our individuality is affirmed and expressed in each of our relations to the world, that is, quoting Marx, “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, loving” (Fromm, 1961: 37-38). Fromm (1961: 38) sees Marx’s goal of socialism – the emancipation of human beings – as our “self-realization in the process of productive relatedness and oneness with [humans] and nature”. For Marx (alongside Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel), he explains, humans are “alive” inasmuch as we are “productive”, grasping the world outside of ourselves in the act of affirming and expressing our total being; inasmuch as we are “not productive”, i.e., “receptive and passive”, we are “nothing”, we are “dead” (Fromm, 1961: 29-30). Fromm (1961: 30) contextualises this concept of productivity – as opposed to receptivity – within Marx’s understanding of “the phenomenon of love”:
““Let us assume man to be man [sic],” [Marx] wrote, “and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust, etc. If you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return, i.e., if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune.””
Love, for Fromm (1956: 32), is a crucial aspect of “the productive orientation: the active and creative relatedness” of humans to their fellow humans and to nature:
“In the realm of thought, this productive orientation is expressed in the proper grasp of the world by reason. In the realm of action, the productive orientation is expressed in productive work, the prototype of which is art and craftsmanship. In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all [humans], and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence.”
Productive love reflects a set of attitudes, “that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1956: 33). Productive love, as part of the orientation of productive life, is the gem of Fromm’s conceptualisation of biophilia.
ii. Insane capitalism: alienation as death
For Fromm (1956: 94-95), capitalism tends towards insanity because it generates a world in which capital, “dead past”, is placed higher than labour, present “living vitality”:
“The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.”
It is worth noting here that Fromm’s (1956: 6) identification and exploration of the “pathology of normalcy”, specifically, the pathology of capitalism, made his work a timely radical alternative to that of Sigmund Freud:
“Freud’s concept of human nature as being essentially competitive (and asocial) is the same as we find it in most authors who believe that the characteristics of man [sic] in modern Capitalism are his natural characteristics. […] His basic concept is that of a “homo sexualis” as that of the economists was that of the “homo economicus.” Both the “economic” man and the “sexual” man are convenient fabrications whose alleged nature – isolated, asocial, greedy and competitive – makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism.” (Fromm, 1956: 76-77)
The basic problem of capitalism, Fromm (1961: 43) argues, is “the negation of productivity: alienation”. Capitalist social relations distort the labour of productive life – that is, meaningful and enjoyable self-expression – into labour which is forced, meaningless, and alienated from us. This alienation (or estrangement) means that we do not experience ourselves as active agents; “the world (nature, others, and [oneself]) remain alien to” us, standing above and against us “as objects” (including those of our own creation) (Fromm, 1961: 44). In brief, alienation, as “essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively” (Fromm, 1961: 44), is dehumanisation and death.
The consequence of capitalist alienation for life in general is the loss of the human dimension through abstractification and quantification:
“This abstractification takes place even with regard to phenomena which are not commodities sold on the market, like a flood disaster; the newspapers will headline a flood, speaking of a “million-dollar catastrophe,” emphasizing the abstract quantitative element rather than the concrete aspects of human suffering. […] It is an expression of the same attitude when a newspaper headlines an obituary with the words “Shoe Manufacturer Dies.” Actually a man has died, a man with certain human qualities, with hopes and frustrations […].” (Fromm, 1956: 116)
Contrary to productive love as biophilia, capitalist alienation fosters the indifference to life and even the attraction of death:
“We speak of millions of people being killed, of one third or more of our population being wiped out if a third World War should occur; we speak of billions of dollars piling up as a national debt […]. Tens of thousands work in one enterprise, hundreds of thousands live in hundreds of cities. The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concept of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimension. This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He [sic] could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection.” (Fromm, 1956: 119)
In our present moment, in which the president of the most powerful country on Earth denies the existence of climate change, Right-wing reactionary nationalisms are on the ascent worldwide, experts are ridiculed and ignorance is celebrated as non-elitist, and fake news is all the rage, Fromm’s (1956: 120) words take on a renewed sobering significance:
“Science, business, politics, have lost all foundations and proportions which make sense humanly. We live in figures and abstractions; since nothing is concrete, nothing is real. Everything is possible, factually and morally.”
iii. Insane capitalism: nationalism as idolatrous worship
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (Donald Trump, 2017)
“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” (Theresa May, 2016)
“Now, the dividing line is not between left and right but globalists and patriots.” (Marine Le Pen, 2015)
Fromm (1956: 58-59) insists that the person who has not “freed” oneself “from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being”, since their “capacity for love and reason” is debilitated:
“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts [one’s] own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare – never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”
For Fromm, it is only when we succeed in fully developing our love and reason (moving from ‘freedom from’ to ‘freedom to’) that we can create a world based on solidarity and justice, that we can feel rooted in a universal comradeship. What’s more, the ecological survival of planet Earth depends on such a biophilic reclamation of globalisation – a rooted connection to ourselves, other living beings, nature, and the world.
iv. The socialist struggle for Biophilia
“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to [one]self; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die – although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.” (Fromm, 1956: 26)
Fromm defines biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” (Fromm, 1973: 485). The tendency “to preserve life and to fight against death” is the most elementary form of biophilia, and is common to all living beings; the more positive aspect of biophilia is the tendency of all living substance:
“to integrate and to unite; […] to fuse with different and opposite entities, and to grow in a structured way. Unification and integrated growth are characteristic of all life processes, not only as far as cells are concerned, but also with regard to feeling and thinking.” (Fromm, 1964: 45-46)
The “person who fully loves life is attracted by the processes of life and growth in all spheres”, preferring “to construct rather than to retain”, “capable of wondering”, loving “the adventure of living” more than certainty, seeing “the whole rather than only the parts”, and wanting “to mold and to influence by love, reason, […] not by force, by cutting things apart” (Fromm, 1964: 47). In dialectical tension with biophilia is necrophilia, the love of death. When life becomes about things, when one is engrossed with having rather than being, when one is obsessed with possession and control, when one is oriented to the past rather than to the present and future, desiring certainty when the only certainty in life is death, then a necrophilous orientation develops (Fromm, 1964). Contrary to Fromm’s dialectic of the biophilous and necrophilous orientations is Freud’s idea of the life instinct (Eros) and the death instinct. This, for Fromm (1964, 1973), is wrong, since both are not biologically given and equally ranked. Biophilia is the normal impulse for living beings, whereas necrophilia is the result of a life unlived.
Most societies fuel conditions of existence for both our creative and destructive tendencies, just as most people are a combination of biophilous and necrophilous orientations – the question is which wins out. “A healthy society furthers” our “capacity to love” others, “to work creatively, to develop” our “reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of” our “own productive powers”; whereas, an “unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms” us “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives” us “of a sense of self” (Fromm, 1956: 72-73). Fromm (1964: 59) warns that the lack of protest against nuclear warfare and “the discussions of our “atomologists” of the balance sheet of total or half-total destruction” reveals “how far we have already gone into the “valley of the shadow of death””. This analogy retains critical relevance amid our own era of global warming and reactionary Right-wing nationalisms.
Ultimately, a political struggle is needed for a global and grassroots democratic socialism that enables the “full unfolding of biophilia” (Fromm, 1964: 46) and the full development of the person “who does not “dominate” nature, but who becomes one with it” (Fromm, 1961: 63). Fromm was a staunch critic of both capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism. His vision of socialism was for an end to “existential egotism”, in which, quoting Marx, we are alienated from our “own body, external nature”, our “mental life” and our “human life” (Fromm, 1961: 53). Fromm (1961: 63) elucidates:
“Marx’s concept of socialism is a protest, as is all existentialist philosophy, against the alienation of [humans]; if, as Aldous Huxley put it, “our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organised lovelessness,” then Marx’s socialism is a protest against this very lovelessness […].”
This is a socialism against the exploitation by human beings of other human beings, of other living beings, and of nature; this is a struggle for a productive life, for life creating life, and for the ecological sovereignty of biophilia.
“Welcome to biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations…” (David Attenborough)
Björk (2011a) Björk is back – Interview 2011 (about Biophilia), YouTube
Björk (2011b) Bjork: On Music and Biophilia – The Sound of Nature | WIRED 2013, YouTube
Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Middlesex: Penguin Books
Fromm, E. (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper and Row Publishers
Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
Fromm, E. (1956) The Sane Society. London: Routledge
Kunkel, B. (2017) “The Capitalocene”. In London Review of Books 39(5), 22-28
Orr, D. W. (1993) “Love It or Lose It: The Coming Biophilia Revolution”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 415-440
Tuan, Y. F. (1990) Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press
Wilson, E. O. (1993) “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 31-41
Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
“Moments are the elements of profit”, so quotes Marx from a factory inspector’s report in Capital Volume I. On reading Marx’s Capital, I am struck by how central ‘time’ is. Capital robs us of time: time for emotional and intellectual growth, time for fresh air and daylight, time for human connection. As central as it is for capital to gain our time as workers, the pursuit of a humane, equal, just, and thoroughly democratic society – a socialist society – is a pursuit to claim back time for ourselves and for one another. If, for capital, with its ceaseless and boundless motion, moments are the elements of profit, then for us moments are the elements for actually living. Mindfulness (or awareness of the present moment) has a significant origin in Buddhism, and yet in recent years it has also been re-appropriated by savvy neoliberal capitalism for greater extraction of profit, present moment by present moment. But the spiritual growth promised by a more meditative living ought not to be seen as separate from the socialist tradition and the striving for a society free from moments as the elements of profit, free from extended working hours, free from workload intensification, and free from what the Japanese call karōshi (過労死) or death by over-work. Such freedom is a freedom to live in moments that are for us and for each other (see Marxism and Spirituality).
The following text by Antonio Gramsci was translated into English by Alberto Toscano for Viewpoint Magazine. It originally appeared in Avanti! (specifically, Gramsci’s column “Sotto la Mole”) on January 1st 1916. One could say that it is about why Gramsci hates New Year’s Day (the article’s title is after all, “I Hate New Year’s Day”), however, it is about something more fundamental: liberating ourselves from the capitalist organisation of time.
I Hate New Year’s Day
Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day.
That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.
They say that chronology is the backbone of history. Fine. But we also need to accept that there are four or five fundamental dates that every good person keeps lodged in their brain, which have played bad tricks on history. They too are New Years’. The New Year’s of Roman history, or of the Middle Ages, or of the modern age.
And they have become so invasive and fossilising that we sometimes catch ourselves thinking that life in Italy began in 752, and that 1490 or 1492 are like mountains that humanity vaulted over, suddenly finding itself in a new world, coming into a new life. So the date becomes an obstacle, a parapet that stops us from seeing that history continues to unfold along the same fundamental unchanging line, without abrupt stops, like when at the cinema the film rips and there is an interval of dazzling light.
That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour.
No spiritual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed. No day of celebration with its mandatory collective rhythms, to share with all the strangers I don’t care about. Because our grandfathers’ grandfathers, and so on, celebrated, we too should feel the urge to celebrate. That is nauseating.
I await socialism for this reason too. Because it will hurl into the trash all of these dates which have no resonance in our spirit and, if it creates others, they will at least be our own, and not the ones we have to accept without reservations from our silly ancestors.
On Saturday 14th May 2016 I attended the Sheffield TUC’s “Europe IN or OUT? The Big Debate”. Maxine Bowler of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) was the main speaker on the top table for the ‘out’ position. In my contribution from the floor I began by stating my critique of the European Union as a neoliberal capitalist club, which is hostile to migrants and refugees. I reasoned that one can be a fierce critic of the status quo and bureaucracy of the European Union whilst recognising that the alternative actuality of ‘Britain out’, in the face of a deeply chauvinistic wave coalescing through the Brexit campaign, would be a reactionary throwback which will impede the struggle for working class liberation. I then referenced the Marxist tradition (by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and others) for a socialist “United States of Europe” – a tradition which has been problematically displaced by Stalinism. Maxine replied: “I am angry that someone has used Marx and Engels to defend the European Union!” So she missed my point. But much worse still, she woefully neglected an important history and compass for the present from supposedly her own tradition. As the debate proceeded, a member of the audience tentatively made a case for ‘Britain out’ on the basis of a need to curb immigration. Maxine responded by making a case for open borders. And herein lies the political incongruity of the Lexit campaign: arguing against a Fortress Europe and for an open Europe, while effectively retreating to (a left-wing) nationalism; arguing against the European Union and for an internationalism, while ineffectively challenging the forces and conditions of existence that are fuelling xenophobia, racism, parochialism, and nationalism. In the fantasy politics minds of its campaigners, Lexit is the subversion of Brexit, yet in reality it is merely an inversion. Moreover, given the tsunami of Brexit, Lexit’s attempt to capsize Brexit continuously fails as wave after wave capsize Lexit.
In the Social Worker article “Say no to Fortress Europe – vote leave on 23 June”, the organisation argues:
“the EU isn’t about bringing people together across borders. It’s about bringing together the ruling classes of some countries to compete against the ruling classes of other countries – partly by putting up borders. The EU makes it harder to travel into Europe from Africa, Asia and South America. To do so it promotes scapegoating myths that can then be turned against European migrants. So can its machinery of border control and repression. Building a racist Fortress Europe is central to the EU project. Bringing down that fortress is essential for any real internationalism or anti-racism. Some activists argue that the bigger enemy is “Fortress Britain”. But the two aren’t in competition. Britain’s rulers use the EU to police their own borders.”
If we leave the European Union, further still, if it disintegrates under a tsunami of chauvinistic nationalisms, then what are the conditions of existence to then fight for an open Europe? If we succumb to a form of left-wing nationalism amidst waves of racist, xenophobic English and British nationalism, then what are the conditions of existence for a future of workers’ solidarity across borders? Maxine and other SWP members at the Sheffield debate defined those who spelt out the highly probable consequences of ‘Britain out’ as promoting a “politics of despair”. Instead, they speculated, Boris would oust Cameron, the Tories would look like a joke, the masses would then take to the streets, and socialism would be victorious.
II. The Marxist tradition for a “United States of Europe”
Let’s start with the following historical context, as summated by Cathy Nugent in her article “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”:
“The term ‘United States of Europe’ has its origins in bourgeois democratic thought in the nineteenth century, and was directed at the multi-national absolutist empires such as Austria and Russia. Some of the more far-sighted thinkers envisaged an alternative way in which the European continent could be organised. The Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, saw a United States of Europe as the logical continuation of Italian unification. For the League of Peace and Freedom, a pacifist organisation Victor Hugo, Giuseppe Garibaldi and John Stuart Mill were involved with, a United States of Europe was a way of preventing war. Marx and Engels had their own view of conflict between nations. In the Communist Manifesto in 1848, they anticipated that “in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” capitalism would lead to “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.” Engels linked the growth of the workers movement and the increasing influence of Social-Democratic parties to the prospects for maintaining peace. When asked if he anticipated a United States of Europe in 1893, he replied: “Certainly. Everything is making in that direction. Our ideas are spreading in every European country.” (Daily Chronicle June 1893)”
The following is an abridged extract from Leon Trotsky’s “The Programme of Peace” (1917), written in the context of the First World War. Here the politics constructing the demand for a “United States of Europe” are detailed. Trotsky’s method of analysis is highly instructive for the contemporary period.
What Is a Programme of Peace?
For the revolutionary proletarian the peace programme does not mean the demands which national militarism must fulfil, but those demands which the international proletariat intends to impose by its revolutionary struggle against militarism of all countries.
Capitalism has transferred into the field of international relations the same methods applied by it in ‘regulating’ the internal economic life of the nations. The path of competition is the path of systematically annihilating the small and medium-sized enterprises and of achieving the supremacy of big capital. World competition of the capitalist forces means the systematic subjection of the small, medium-sized and backward nations by the great and greatest capitalist powers. The more developed the technique of capitalism, the greater the role played by finance capital and the higher the demands of militarism, all the more grows the dependency of the small states on the great powers. This process, forming as it does an integral element of imperialist mechanics, flourishes undisturbed also in times of peace by means of state loans, railway and other concessions, military-diplomatic agreements, etc. The war uncovered and accelerated this process by introducing the factor of open violence. The war destroys the last shreds of the ‘independence’ of small states, quite apart from the military outcome, of the conflict between the two basic enemy camps.
Status Quo Ante Bellum
But the question is: Can the proletariat under the present circumstances advance an independent peace programme, that is, its own solutions of the problems which caused the current war or which have been disclosed in the course of this war?
We have been told that the proletariat does not now command sufficient forces to bring about the realization of such a programme. Utopian is the hope that the proletariat could realize its own peace programme as a consequence of the present war. Something else again is the struggle for the cessation of the war and for a peace without annexation, i.e., a return to the status quo ante bellum, to the state of affairs prior to the war. This, we are told, is by far the more realistic programme. Such were, for example, the arguments of Martov, Martynov and the Menshevik Internationalists generally, who hold on this question as on all others not a revolutionary but a conservative position […].
The European status quo ante bellum, the product of wars, robberies, violations, legitimism, diplomatic stupidity and impotence of peoples, remains as the only positive content of the slogan ‘without annexations’.
In its struggle against imperialism, the proletariat cannot set up as its political aim the return to the map of old Europe; it must advance its own programme of state and national relations, corresponding to the fundamental tendencies of economic development, corresponding to the revolutionary character of the epoch and the socialist interests of the proletariat.
The only acceptable content of the slogan ‘without annexations’ is thus a protest, against new violent acquisitions, which amounts to giving a negative expression to, the right of nations to self-determination. But we have seen that this democratically unquestionable ‘right’ is being and will necessarily be transformed into the right of strong nations to make acquisitions and impose oppression, whereas for the weak nations it will mean an impotent wish or a ‘scrap of paper’. Such will be the case as long as the political map of Europe forces nations and their fractions within the framework of states separated by tariff barriers and continually brought into conflict by the imperialist struggle.
It is possible to overcome this régime only through the proletarian revolution. Thus, the centre of gravity of the question lies in combining the peace programme of the proletariat with that of the social revolution.
[…] even if by a miracle Europe were divided by force of arms into fixed national states and small states, the national question would not thereby be in the least decided and, the very next day after the ‘just’ national redistributions, capitalist expansion would resume its work. Conflicts would arise, wars and new acquisitions, in complete violation of the national principle in all cases where its preservation cannot be maintained by a sufficient number of bayonets. It would all give the impression of inveterate gamblers being forced to divide the gold ‘justly’ among themselves in the middle of the game, in order to start the same game all over again with redoubled frenzy.
From the might of the centralist tendencies of imperialism, it does not at all follow that we are obliged passively to submit to it. A national community is the living hearth of culture, as the national language is its living organ, and these will still retain their significance through indefinitely long historical periods. The Social Democracy is desirous of safeguarding and is obliged to safeguard to the national community its freedom of development (or dissolution) in the interests of material and spiritual culture. It is in this sense that it has taken over from the revolutionary bourgeoisie the democratic principle of national self-determination as a political obligation.
The right of national self-determination cannot he excluded from the proletarian peace programme; but it cannot claim absolute importance. On the contrary, it is delimited for us by the converging, profoundly progressive tendencies of historical development. If this ‘right’ must be – through revolutionary force – counter-posed to the imperialist methods of centralization which enslave weak and backward peoples and mush the hearths of national culture, then on the other hand the proletariat cannot allow the ‘national principle’ to get in the way of the irresistible and deeply progressive tendency of modern economic life towards a planned organization throughout our continent, and further, all over the globe. Imperialism is the capitalist-thievish expression of this tendency of modern economy to tear itself completely away from the idiocy of national narrowness, as it did previously with regard to local and provincial confinement. While fighting against the imperialist form of economic centralization, socialism does not at all take a stand against the particular tendency as such but, on the contrary, makes the tendency its own guiding principle.
A national-cultural existence, free of national economic antagonisms and based on real self-determination, is possible only under the roof of a democratically united Europe freed from state and tariff barriers.
Between our present social condition and socialism there still lies an extended epoch of social revolution, that is, the epoch of the open proletarian struggle for power, the conquest and application of this power with the aim of the complete democratization of social relations, and the systematic transformation of capitalist society into the socialist society. This is the epoch not of pacification and tranquillity but, on the contrary, of the highest intensification of the class struggle, the epoch of popular uprisings, wars, expanding experiments of the proletarian régime, and socialist reforms. This epoch demands of the proletariat, that it give a practical, that is, an immediately applicable answer to the question of the further existence of nationalities and their reciprocal relations with the state and the economy.
The United States of Europe
We tried to prove in the foregoing that the economic and political unification of Europe is the necessary prerequisite for the very possibility of national self-determination. Just as the slogan of national independence of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and others remains an empty abstraction without the supplementary slogan Federative Balkan Republic, which played such an important role in the whole policy of the Balkan Social Democracy; so, on the all-European scale, the principle of the ‘right’ to self-determination can be invested with flesh and blood only under the conditions of a European Federative Republic.
The Hungarian financial and industrial bourgeoisie is hostile to economic unification with capitalistically more developed Austria. The Austro-Hungarian bourgeoisie is hostile to the idea of a tariff union with more powerful Germany. On the other hand, the German landowners will never willingly consent to the cancellation of grain duties. Furthermore, the economic interests of the propertied classes of the Central Empires cannot be so easily made to coincide with the interests of the English, French, Russian capitalists and landed gentry. The present war, speaks eloquently enough on this score. Lastly, the disharmony and irreconcilability of capitalist interests between the Allies themselves is more visible than in the Central States. Under these circumstances, a halfway complete and consistent economic unification of Europe coming from the top by means of an agreement of the capitalist governments is sheer utopia. Here, the matter can go no further than partial compromises and half-measures. Hence it is that the economic unification of Europe, which offers colossal advantages to producer and consumer alike, and in general to the whole cultural development, becomes the revolutionary task of the European proletariat in its struggle against imperialist protectionism and its instrument – militarism.
The United States of Europe – without monarchies, standing armies and secret diplomacy – is therefore the most important integral part of the proletarian peace programme.
The ideologists and politicians of German imperialism frequently came forward, especially at the beginning of the war, with their programme of a European or at least a Central European ‘United States’ (without France and England on the one side and Russia on the other). The programme of a violent unification of Europe is just as characteristic of the tendencies of German imperialism as is the tendency of French imperialism whose programme is the forcible dismemberment of Germany.
If the German armies achieved the decisive victory reckoned upon in Germany during the first phase of the war, the German imperialism would have doubtless made the gigantic attempt of realizing a compulsory military-tariff union of European states, which would be constructed completely of exemptions, compromises, etc., which would reduce to a minimum the progressive meaning of the unification of the European market. Needless to say, under such circumstances no talk would be possible of an autonomy of the nations, thus forcibly joined together as the caricature of the European United States. Certain opponents of the programme of the United States of Europe have used precisely this perspective as an argument that this idea can, under certain conditions, acquire a “reactionary” monarchist-imperialist content. Yet it is precisely this perspective that provides the most graphic testimony in favour of the revolutionary viability of the slogan of the United States of Europe. Let us for a moment grant that German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe, just as Prussian militarism once achieved the half-union of Germany, what would then be the central slogan of the European proletariat? Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of “autonomous” tariffs, “national” currencies, “national” social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not. The programme of the European revolutionary movement would then be: The destruction of the compulsory anti-democratic form of the coalition, with the preservation and furtherance of its foundations, in the form of compete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labour laws, etc. In other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe – without monarchies and standing armies – would under the indicated circumstances become the unifying and guiding slogan of the European revolution.
If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.
Now, after the so very promising beginning of the Russian revolution, we have every reason to hope that during the course of this present war a powerful revolutionary movement will be launched all over Europe. It is clear that such a movement can succeed and develop and gain victory only as a general European one. Isolated within national borders, it would be doomed to disaster. […] In other words, the founding of a stable régime of proletarian dictatorship would be conceivable only if it extended throughout Europe, and consequently in the form of a European Republican Federation.
The United States of Europe is the slogan of the revolutionary epoch into which we have entered. Whatever turn the war operations may take later on, whatever balance sheet diplomacy may draw out of the present war, and at whatever tempo the revolutionary movement will progress in the near future, the slogan of the United States of Europe will in all cases retain a colossal meaning as the political formula of the struggle of the European proletariat for power. In this programme is expressed the fact that the national state has outlived itself – as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for the class struggle, and thereby also as a state form of proletarian dictatorship. Our denial of ‘national defence’, as an outlived political programme for the proletariat, ceases to be a purely negative act of ideological-political self-defence, and acquires all its revolutionary content only in the event that over against the conservative defence of the antiquated national fatherland we place the progressive task, namely the creation of a new, higher ‘fatherland’ of the revolution, of republican Europe, whence the proletariat alone will be enabled to revolutionize and to reorganize the whole world.
Herein, incidentally, lies the answer to those who ask dogmatically. ‘Why the unification of Europe and not of the whole world?’ Europe is not only a geographic term, but a certain economic and cultural-historic community. The European revolution does not have to wait for the revolutions in Asia and Africa nor even in Australia and America. And yet completely victorious revolution in Russia or England is unthinkable without a revolution in Germany, and vice-versa. The present war is called a world war, but even after the intervention of the United States, it is Europe that is the arena of war. And the revolutionary problems confront first of all the European proletariat.
Of course, the United States of Europe will be only one of the two axes of the world organization of economy. The United States of America will constitute the other.
Generally speaking it must not be forgotten that in social patriotism there is active, in addition to the most vulgar reformism, a national revolutionary messianism, which regards its national state as chosen for introducing to humanity ‘socialism’ or ‘democracy’, be it on the ground of its industrial development or of its democratic form and revolutionary conquests. […] Defending the national basis of the revolution which such methods as undermine the international connections of the proletariat, really amounts to undermining the revolution, which cannot begin otherwise than on the national basis, but which cannot be completed on that basis in view of the present economic and military-political interdependence of the European states, which has never been so forcefully revealed as in this war. The slogan, the United States of Europe, gives expression to this interdependence, which will directly and immediately set the conditions for the concerted action of the European proletariat in the revolution.
Denying support to the state – not in the name of a propaganda circle but in the name of the most important class in society – in the period of the greatest catastrophe, internationalism does not simply eschew ‘sin’ passively, but affirms that the fate of world development is no longer linked for us with the fate of the national state; more than this, that the latter has become a vise for development and must be overcome, that is, replaced by a higher economic-cultural organization on a broader foundation. If the problem of socialism were compatible with the framework of the national state, then it would thereby become compatible with national defence. But the problem of socialism confronts us on the imperialist foundation, that is, under conditions in which capitalism itself is forced violently to destroy the national-state framework it has itself established.
Returning to Cathy Nugent, in “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”:
“[Trotsky’s] method of posing the question has a bearing on what we say about the EU today. Much like Marxists do not ‘endorse’ the spread of capitalism, and help workers to fight the capitalists every step of the way, we recognise how it creates the possibility of socialism. Similarly, just as Trotsky did not give political support to European unification under German imperialism, we do not take political responsibility for the way in which the European bourgeoisie has unified Europe in its own incomplete and increasingly destructive way. We recognise, however, that European integration provides the terrain on which the European workers’ movement can link up to fight the bosses, and for the levelling up of democratic and social rights. To the capitalist European Union we pose not ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘national development’ but the Socialist United States of Europe.”
The debate on whether to ‘stay or leave’ the European Union desperately requires a reclamation of the tradition of the Left for a socialist “United States of Europe”: the struggle for working class international solidarity and liberation must entail sharp opposition to both a neoliberal capitalist, bureaucratic, and undemocratic European Union and a chauvinistic retreat to competition between national neoliberal capitalisms, and the demand for a democratic workers’ Europe.
We live in a deeply globalised world, in which the power of capital is huge, but capital contains its own gravediggers. The idea that capital’s gravediggers are best positioned to hammer a blow to capital by de-globalising is a flawed one, rather our positioning too must be globalised. We want to be seizing the means and resources of globalisation for ourselves for our collective betterment. Global capitalism is contradictory: it throws up closures and openings, constraints and radical possibilities. Our task is to move from the present to the future, not to reverse the present into the past; our job is to identify the conditions of existence that provide our class with the greatest possibility of making that political move forward. On this note, I’ll end with the words of Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto:
“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”
“Not just in China, but everywhere in the world without exception, one either leans to the side of imperialism or the side of socialism. Neutrality is mere camouflage; a third road does not exist.” Mao Zedong, 1949
“I absolutely refuse to associate myself with anyone who cannot discern the essential night-and-day difference between theocratic fascism and liberal secular democracy…” Christopher Hitchens, 2008
The global political confrontations of the twentieth century appeared, in explicit form, as dualistic conflicts of civilisation versus barbarism: the Second World War posed a choice between Atlantic bloc imperialism and fascism, and the Cold War, between US imperialism and Stalinist totalitarianism. Once again, in our contemporary era, there appears before us a duel: between Western imperialism and Islamism. Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations? thesis seemingly offers a more nuanced representation. Huntington states at the start of his essay: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
In actuality, what Huntington presents is yet another dualism (this one reductive to cultural and religious identities), the West versus the Rest, which is devoid of materiality and class relations. Fredric Jameson astutely remarks: “here the plurality of cultures simply stands for the decentralized, diplomatic and military jungle with which ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ culture will have to deal. Yet ultimately, any discussion of globalization surely has to come to terms, one way or another, with the reality of capitalism itself.”
An old debate between the US socialist Hal Draper and the Italian novelist and politician Ignazio Silone in 1956 offers remarkable political instruction, then and now, in response to the hegemonic appearance of a ‘dual camp’ (for the full debate, see The “Third Camp”: Hal Draper debates Ignazio Silone). Crucial background to this debate is Silone’s original position regarding global conflicts, as communicated in an interview in 1939, in which he advances a socialist alternative to supporting the conservative bourgeois democratic bloc against the fascist bloc. Draper, seventeen years later, questions the “political transubstantiation” of Silone: from this to that of offering support to the Atlantic imperialist bloc against the fascist bloc and thus abandoning the socialist alternative to both. The Silone of 1939, Draper spells out, is the best critic of a later Silone.
II. The Ignazio Silone of 1939
In 1939 Silone is very clear in his resistance against political progressives being forced into siding with one of two apparent camps in global conflicts:
“The world is now divided into two great fronts: one composed of the conservatives, that is, of the democracies or other partisans of collective security; the other composed of the revisionists or fascists. Neither of these two fronts is capable of assuring peace or of solving the economic and political problems now confronting the world. Real peace depends today on the rapidity with which a third front is created, on the rapidity with which revolutionary workers all over the world retain their political autonomy and resume the struggle to overthrow capitalism.”
“They try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression? Most of the progressive forces have already accepted this Hobson’s choice.”
Hobson’s choice – a phrase originating from Thomas Hobson (a livery stable owner in Cambridge), who presented his customers with the offer of ‘take this horse or none at all’ – is the presentation of free choice when in reality there is no choice at all; this, Silone recognises, is the trap that the bourgeoisie lays down for us.
Furthermore, Silone makes plain that he is not equating one camp with the other:
“One thing I must make clear at the outset: I think it would be a serious mistake to put bourgeois democracy and fascism on the same level, in view of the great differences between these two forms of political organisation. The Stalinists, who until 1934 denied the existence of any such differences and who fought against social-democracy and liberal democracy as the equivalent of fascism, these gentlemen in actuality made possible Hitler’s victory.”
The fundamental point Silone is making is this: in order to effectively fight fascism, one cannot rely on bourgeois democratic regimes, as they do not provide meaningful solutions to the conditions of existence and to the problems which fuel the growth of fascism – only a socialist alternative to both can do this. This is a point that can also be applied to the fight against Stalinism or against Islamism today. Silone elaborates:
“it would also be a mistake, through fear of fascism, to turn conservative. Fascism’s power, its mass appeal, its contagious influence, all are due to the fact that fascism means false solutions, easy solutions, ersatz solutions but, all the same, solutions of the real problems of our time. We can conquer fascism only by proposing and carrying out other solutions – just, humane, progressive solutions of these same problems. But conservative democracy denies the existence of these problems. She does not see them, does not wish to see them, is unable to see them. That is why, in spite of her military strength, her material wealth and her monopoly of raw materials, when conservative democracy is brought face to face with fascism, she is forced back onto the defensive. That is why she has until now been beaten by fascism. That is why she is weak. The democrats are right when they call the Nazi ‘abolition of unemployment’ fictitious, unstable and a stop gap measure, but their criticism will be more convincing when they themselves find and carry out a healthy and permanent solution of that same problem. It is true that fascist nationalism conflicts with the peaceful collaboration of all peoples which is a historical necessity, now that the economic integration of the globe has laid the foundation for a progressive world unity. But the Versailles system is also based on nationalism, it too is opposed to historical development, and so it cannot be set up as an effective barrier against fascism.”
Early Silone concludes on moth ball socialism
The following conclusion is Silone at his very best, as he underscores the critical importance of fighting fascism through a ‘third camp’ of independent socialist politics:
“When the socialists, with the best possible anti-fascist intentions, renounce their own program, put their own theories in moth balls, and accept the negative positions of conservative democracy, they think they are doing their bit in the struggle to crush fascism. Actually, they leave to fascism the distinction of alone daring to bring forward in public certain problems, thus driving into the fascists’ arms thousands of workers who will not accept the status quo.”
Echo Stalinism, or Islamism today.
III. Draper-Silone debate, 1956
The essence of Silone’s comments on moth ball socialism vanish by 1956, as he attempts to reason:
“The victory of Hitler would have meant the destruction for a long time of the premise for any political activity whatever and hence also for the struggle for socialism. Anti-war sabotage actions on the part of Western workers’ organisations would have led to this. It would have been a collective suicide.”
Third camp reduced to a sophism of equidistance
In contradiction to Silone-1939, a later Silone states, in defence of his support for the Atlantic imperialist bloc:
“we reject the sophism of equidistance. In the first national assembly of our organisation on 18 January 1953 a declaration was adopted in which one could read as follows. ‘It would be an error to judge our open and irreconcilable opposition to totalitarian regimes of any kind and our critical vigilance over the imperfections and contingent tendencies that exist in the democratic regimes as a position of equidistance.'”
Draper replies by reminding Silone of his own earlier position:
“Very carefully Silone-1939 made clear that he did not equate bourgeois democracy with fascism, nor was he derogatory of the value of bourgeois freedoms. He was obviously aware of the existence of gentlemen who like to reduce all politics to that incontrovertible distinction. It was a question of how to fight fascism – by supporting one imperialist war bloc against another, or by fighting for a socialist transformation of society against both? – just as it is now a question of how to fight totalitarian Stalinism, which is able to win victories today only insofar as it can convince its victims that the only realistic alternative to its own rule is the continued rule of the old discredited system of capitalism.”
Socialism reduced to antiseptic imperialism
In abandoning a position that politically advances an independent, internationalist working class politics, socialism gets reduced, Draper reveals, to agitating for an antiseptic imperialism:
“Why exactly did you decide that the function of socialists in this war crisis is not to fight both imperialist blocs but rather to make sure that the ‘democratic’ imperialists remain ‘purely defensive’, unmilitaristic, free from reactionary tendencies, and otherwise unsullied – to produce a perfectly antiseptic imperialism, in other words, while international misunderstandings are to be taken care of by ‘negotiations, mediation, arbitration,’ etc?”
What’s more, Draper remonstrates, such a sterilised and impotent imperialism – willing and able to defend the purest and most democratic of human values and freedoms – is fanciful thinking:
“If you have now ‘withdrawn your positions’ from the advanced trenches of revolutionary socialism and its democracy to the more prudent rear-lines of bourgeois democracy, what experience of recent life or history has persuaded you that this is where the bastions of human values are to be best defended? Perhaps it is the capacity of the ‘democratic regimes’ for guaranteeing human liberties, as we have been finding out here in the US before, during and since the reign of McCarthy? It is perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to de-Nazify the German reaction under our pet Adenauer, or demilitarise the Japanese warlords. Is it perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to break away even from Hitlerite allies like Franco? Is it perhaps the ‘democratic’ capacity to break with butchers like Chiang Kai-shek or Syngman Rhee or the semi-fascist lords of Thailand who are America’s only ‘bastions of democracy’ in the Asian world?…”
“precisely because socialism faces its crisis, is it not the duty of every socialist who has not been overcome by despair to resist when ‘they try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression’ and to devote himself [sic] to the unflagging task in whatever manner of seeking, finding and pursuing the revolutionary and democratic socialist way out of the shambles that has been made of this world by rival exploiters.”
Recommended further reading, my paper ‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement
“On an antiquated, ridiculously heavy frankenstein’s monster of a bike, I rode up agonising hills and down wild descents. I was last home and felt it for days. And here’s the thing: my mind, my imagination, my sense of history and somehow my spirit of solidarity were all reinspired and reinvigorated, just as my craving to cycle was. Best Sunday out in ages.” Dan Higginbottom
“The ride was well worth the travel up from the Midlands. I ride a lot but what marked this out for me was not only discovering new roads and stunning views but learning about the bike and its role in social history. The long route was challenging but we were rewarded by spectacular scenery and it was a real buzz to ride some roads that had been used for the Tour de France and seeing the names of the pros still grafittied onto the roads. I will definitely do another Bolshy Bike Ride.” Helen Russell, Former World and European Duathlon and Triathlon AG Champion, and Rider of Tour de France One Day Ahead 2015
“I didn’t know how I would do cycling for 20 miles across the Peak District, but it was a stimulating, exciting, and rewarding experience. The combination of the encouragement of my comrades, the inspiration of Camila’s talks and the glorious sunshine made the day incredibly memorable! The history of cycling and its emancipatory role in the lives of women and the working class, of socialist politics and of environmental movements was fascinating, and the day was a perfect balance of nourishment for the mind, body and (apologies to the materialists) the soul.” Max Munday
“The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life.” Karl Marx
For details, see my blog page: The Bolshy Cycle Ride
“Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Friedrich Engels, 1844)
I. Brewer’s thesis
Benjamin Brewer‘s paper, Commercialization in Professional Cycling 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping”, is superb and well worth a full read. Here I want to offer a presentation of his narrative followed by a Marxist understanding of the political economy of cycling and doping as ‘licensed fraud’.
Brewer historically (and geographically) contextualises the prevalent and sophisticated social organisation of doping in contemporary professional cycling, which includes new relations between medicine and sport, within the institutional changes made by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which brought about a deeper commercialisation of the sport, that in turn led to new competitive pressures and changes for teams and riders, and “fertile ground” (pg 277) for innovations in training and doping. Brewer sees the relationship between commercialisation and doping as “one of unintended consequences” (pg 296) – a point on which we differ (see my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, and part II here).
For professional cycling, Brewer makes plain, there was no “idyllic, pre-commercial past later sullied by the cynical demands of business and money making” (pg 277); instead, there is the question of degree and impact of commercialisation during its lifespan. Cycling has long relied on commercial sponsors, who expect returns from the money invested in advertising.
Writing on the classical period (1950-1984), Brewer notes:
“Major teams were almost always structured around a single dominant leader – occasionally two – expected to garner nearly all of the team’s results. […] Team leaders made enough money to support themselves training and racing year round, but very few cyclists attained any lasting wealth from racing. Most returned to low-prestige occupations upon retirement having saved very little money during their racing years. Pro cycling in this classical period was mainly a ‘blue-collar’ sport practiced by the sons of the lower classes for fans from the same milieu […]. Because only a small number of team leaders were expected to deliver the major results during this era, the bulk of racers cared very little about their own results. The resulting atmosphere was one of marked fraternity […].” (pg. 282-283)
On the history of cycling and doping, Brewer recognises that the two “were partners from the start” (pg 284), but, in the classical period, doping was “a loose system reliant on informed speculation combined with traditional knowledge” (pg 285). This would change.
Brewer moves on to what he defines as the transition and reform period (1984-1989). Greg LeMond’s arrival on the European scene signified a “profound shift in traditional team arrangements, principally in the area of salary negotiations and pay scales” (pg 286). Sponsorship changed in nature too, from “small-scale, ‘shoestring’ endeavours” to “more sophisticated marketing tactics of large corporations” (pg 286). Amidst this came the institutional reforms of UCI, notably, its Mondialisation campaign. In the classical period a majority of riders came from a small number of western European countries: France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. UCI’s Mondialisation drive – for the “global expansion of cycling” (pg 288) – introduced the World Cup and a computerised rankings system for riders; moreover, Mondialisation meant deeper commercialisation of the sport. Brewer states:
“The advent of the rankings system for both teams and racers, in tandem with the new rules for admission to the major races signaled a profound change in the political economy of professional cycling. The major races are precisely the reason major sponsors enter the sport since these events attract the bulk of media attention, particularly the highly coveted television coverage. Thus, entry into the major races directly determines which sponsors will realize the return on their initial sponsorship investment.” (pg 289)
The contemporary period of professional cycling, from 1990 onwards, institutionalised these changes. Brewer cites Australian cyclist Allan Peiper from 1992:
“The points system was fun to begin with, but then came the rule of taking the five best-placed cyclists from each team, and adding their points together for a team total score. The top 20 teams could ride the World Cup classics and the Tour – the rest would miss out. So points became really important. Points really became money. The old system of team leaders and domestiques was to be undermined.” (pg 290)
Brewer underlines the effect: “From the outset of the rankings system the most frequently heard complaint from the racers and team directors was the increasingly cutthroat nature of competition and the increased speeds in races” (bold: my emphasis, pg 293).
The new competitive pressure of the contemporary period has changed the team, from its classical time, into a less hierarchical structure to reduce the risk for sponsor investment (since risk is spread out across a number of key riders), and has laid fecund ground for innovations in training and preparation: if, Brewer states, “traditional doping provided an immediate performance ‘spike’, the new epoch of performance-enhancing pharmacology would be best represented by an upward curve punctuated by periodic (and regular) plateaus” (pgs 294-295). What Brewer offers is a highly persuasive, and well researched, argument; indeed, the independent report to UCI published in March 2015 provides further evidence to back up his thesis.
II. Licensed fraud: Engels’ thesis
What has become of the professional cyclist, the worker, under such evolving conditions of existence? The Mondialisation campaign of UCI was a success in radically transitioning the sport hand-in-hand with global capital accumulation. While the professional cyclist and team have long been branded commodities to aid in the delivery of greater profits on related branded commodities, the commercialisation of professional cycling is much deeper and more expansive in its contemporary era. Brewer notes:
“The ‘value-added’ by sponsoring a team […] was confirmed by a vice-president for sales at the US Postal Service, sponsor of the team with which Lance Armstrong has won multiple editions of the Tour de France. Gail Sonnenberg stated: ‘Like any other sponsorship, it’s about building our brand,’ continuing, ‘This is not something we do because it feels good’ […]. Ms Sonnenberg claimed that in 1999 the team ‘brought the post office $10 million…more than offsetting the cost of being the team’s title sponsor.’ The Managing Director of Danish corporation CSC echoes this sentiment regarding his firm’s $2.5 million investment in a team: ‘We could have spent up to $50 million to have obtained the attention we’ve had so far. Cycling is perfect for branding a name’ […].” For a current example, it would be worth considering INRING//’s analysis of “The Finances of Team Sky”.
The entertainment factor of professional cycling, and all of its apparent glamour (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), diverts us from something. To be sure, doping in cycling is illegal, but if we define ‘doping’ as the consumption of a drug to enhance the performance of an athlete, and we define ‘drug’ as a medicine or substance consumed with a physiological effect, and we know both of the close relationship between medicine and sport, and of the imperative of capital personified for endless self-expansion, then perhaps we can sense a truer reality. As Engels (1844) remarks:
“the first maxim in trade is secretiveness – the concealment of everything which might reduce the value of the article in question. The result is that in trade it is permitted to take the utmost advantage of the ignorance, the trust, of the opposing party, and likewise to impute qualities to one’s commodity which it does not possess. In a word, trade is legalised fraud.”
The Mondialisation pioneers may retort, “‘Have we not carried civilisation to distant parts of the world? Have we not brought about the fraternisation of the peoples […]?'”; and one might reply:
“Yes, all this you have done – but how! You have destroyed the small monopolies so that the one great basic monopoly […] may function the more freely and unrestrictedly. You have civilised the ends of the earth to win new terrain for the deployment of your vile avarice. You have brought about the fraternisation of the peoples – but the fraternity is the fraternity of thieves.” (Engels, 1844)
Marx, the Wood Theft Law, and commodity fetishism
While editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles (in 1842) about a proposal in the Rhenish provincial assembly, on behalf of the forest owners, to stop the traditional practice of gathering (dead) wood by the peasants. Here, in debating the Wood Theft Law, an early Marx came to recognise the role of the State in protecting the interests of private property over and against general interests, the intersection of political, social and economic relations, and the fetishism of the commodity form:
“Can the forest owner present private demands where he has no private claims? Was the forest owner the state, prior to the theft of wood? He was not, but he becomes it after the theft. The wood possesses the remarkable property that as soon as it is stolen it bestows on its owner state qualities which previously he did not possess. […] The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.”
“In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.”
Marx goes on to state that the Cubans identified “gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They [the Spaniards] celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea.” With such insight, he reasons, had the Cubans been present in the debate in the Rhenish provincial assembly, they would surely have seen “wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?”
In later works, Marx develops his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. In Capital (Volume One), he concludes:
“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of [human] labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”
Cycling, commodity festishism, and podium girls
Commodities take various forms. In professional cycling, for example, there’s the bicycle, the attire, the paraphernalia, the rider, and the podium girls. In one sense, it’s all laid bare. This year’s Tour de France (2015) will show the bodies of cyclists littered with the advertising logos of Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Etixx-Quick Step, Giant-Alpecin, Movistar, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale, Orica-GreenEdge, Cannondale-Garmin, BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Lotto-Soudal, Katusha, MTN-Qhubeka, LottoNL-Jumbo, Europcar, Confidis, IAM, Lampre-Merida, Bora-Argon18, and Bretagne-Séché. Such logos will be an unavoidable, integral sight for those wishing to enjoy actual cycling and France’s spectacular landscape. The decision-making of teams and riders will be steered by the fused competition of sport and capital. An independent report to the UCI (in March 2015) noted:
“It is interesting that riders are […] aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision. […] Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling […] Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”
Professional cycling seems almost desensitised to the dehumanising effects of commodity fetishism. The hiring of commodified labour-power, as seen below, makes for an absurd and an outrageous spectacle, and yet it is also a logical extension of an über-commodified world of male-dominated, professional cycling. Here sexism and capitalism blend: this is entertainment, which creams profit from its workers, whilst confounding them with the products of their labour. It’s demeaning to cyclists, and to all lovers of cycling – women and men.
A necessary struggle for gender equality in cycling should also entail a struggle to free cycling from its dope, capital. The representation of private interests, of capital, “abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.” Free the body from commercial-imperative so that we can dress and undress as we like, and so that we can cycle as we like; free us from social relations between things to social relations between human beings! Ride on.
“As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value [i.e. profit]…” (Karl Marx, “The Working Day”, Capital: Volume One)
“Marx does not advance a moral ‘right’ to an unscathed existence or something similar against the impositions of capitalism. Instead, he hopes that with the growing insight into the destructive nature of the capitalist system (which can be established without recourse to morality), the working class will take up the struggle against this system – not on the basis of morality, but rather on the basis of its own interest.” (Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital)
Reacting to news that Lance Armstrong will be participating in Geoff Thomas’s Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015 – a fundraising event for Cure Leukaemia – the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) stated: “I’m sure that Geoff Thomas means well, but frankly I think that’s completely inappropriate and disrespectful to the Tour, disrespectful to the current riders, and disrespectful to the UCI and the anti-doping community”. It’s incredible that the UCI, the organisation that “colluded” with Lance Armstrong “to bypass doping accusations” from 1999 to 2009, is actually able to distance itself from the doping culture of professional cycling; or is it incredible? Actually, it’s hardly surprising at all.
The endless pursuit of profit-making, at the expense of workers and nature, is not the result, as Marx depicts in Capital, of greedy, individual Moneybags; although, greedy, individual Moneybags does exist. A capitalist, regardless of their intent, good or bad, in order to survive as a capitalist, must boundlessly chase profit, or perish. The political economy of capitalism is the relentless motion of M-C-M’ (the general formula for capital): money (M) to buy commodities (C) to make more money (M’), for money to buy commodities to make more money, and on and on; the use-value of the commodity of labour-power is the most fortuitous commodity of all for any Moneybags, because its use-value is, distinctively, a source of value and surplus-value.
“…it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. … The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.” (Karl Marx, “The General Formula for Capital”, Capital: Volume One)
The world of professional cycling is inseparable from this wheel-turning motion of capital accumulation. Does the capital that drives professional cycling care for the long-term lives of its wage-labourers, or is its focus to extract the utmost from the labour-power it employs to make a profit? The history of doping in professional cycling isn’t a history of good capitalists and bad capitalists, good teams and bad teams, good riders and bad riders, it is a history of a world in which competition compels capital personified to continuously seek advantage in gaining more and more surplus-value from its wage-labourers, thus generating and fuelling a systemic culture of doping. Opt out and one expires.
I am not interested in a dissection of Lance Armstrong’s personality from a moral standpoint. I’ve read my share of books about doping in the cycling profession, including about ‘the Lance factor’. The problem with such books is their focus on bad riders and good riders, bad teams and good teams. Doping existed in professional cycling before, during, and (in probability) post the Lance Armstrong era.
The boss of Team Sky, Dave Brailsford, has said, on Lance Armstrong riding One Day Ahead 2015: “Lance has done enough damage to the Tour already. He’s done enough damage to the sport.” One might say that the rampant commercialisation of cycling has damaged the sport. One might say that the commercial dominance of Team Sky – rich in monies from the Murdoch empire – strangled the Tour de France in 2012 and 2013 of any meaningful sporting drama. It’s odd how the history of doping in professional cycling can be laid solely, individually, and moralistically at the door of Lance Armstrong. His crime was to be exceptionally good at playing the system, and embedding himself within the system – call it ‘Planet Lance’, a story of how one professional cyclist turned from a wage-labourer to an especially shrewd capitalist and philanthropist. But Lance Armstrong was not the system itself, he was one planet in its universe. Who is the real enemy of professional cycling? And, what’s its real dope? Capital, silly.