Paraphrasing a passage from Marx in the Grundrisse, Stavros Tombazos remarks that “every economy is in the end an economy of time” (2014, 13). This is to say that the productivity of labour, the accumulation of wealth, and the circulation of goods and resources which make up an economy in its broadest sense are all components of a particular organisation of time. Changes to this economic organisation are therefore felt not only in the transformations they effect materially, but also in the order of temporality and the rhythms of life possible under a particular economic system. This fact that the passage of time, which is so often taken for a given, is in actuality conditioned by the material and economic conditions in which we live is nowhere more apparent than in our present moment of climate change and ecological catastrophe.
Two long centuries of industrial capitalism have left us with a perception of time which is no longer adequate to the material conditions now reshaping our lives. The ecological historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz typify this old order of time by its dependence on the extraction of fossil fuels: “The continuous time of industrial capitalism,” they write, was “projected onto cultural representations of the future, conceived as a continuous progress unfurling to the rhythm of productivity gains” (2016, 203). The shock of our present moment is that this steady and linear increase in productivity, conceptualised as the natural progress toward a tomorrow greater than today, was only ever the product of a temporary influx of energy from a diminishing resource. As Rob Nixon writes, “in this interregnum between energy regimes, we are living on borrowed time—borrowed from the past and from the future,” with the continuation of the status quo only accelerating us “toward an abbreviated collective future as fossils in the making” (2011, 69).
In the twilight years of fossil capitalism we see the emergence of a new organisation of time in which the present is no longer able to fuel itself at the expense of the future, and the accumulated destruction of the past returns at a planetary level. To address this disjunction between the time of capital and the temporalities of nature upon which it feeds, I will offer an account of the metabolic rift theory of contemporary ecosocialists and attempt to expand this metabolic account into more monstrous territory by way of Marx’s own characterisation of capital’s vampiric thirst. Consequently, I wish to suggest Walter Benjamin’s approach to history, nature, and capital as a potential bridge between the metabolic account of capital’s planetary depredation and the project of ideological critique required to lift the haze of our temporal stasis and dispel the vampire’s curse for good.
I: THIRST FOR ACCUMULATION
In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes that “labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. […] Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature” (1976, 283). Not merely an action taken upon nature, labour is the act of controlling the exchange between humanity and nature and the mutual transformation that result from that exchange. As has been remarked upon by the ecosocialists John Bellamy Foster (2000), Paul Burkett (2014), and Kohei Saito (2018), Marx’s conception of labour and the relation it establishes between humanity and nature hinges upon the concept of metabolism. Borrowed from the agronomist Justus von Liebig, Marx’s conception of metabolic exchange draws from its origins in chemistry, as “an incessant process of organic exchange of old and new compounds through combinations, assimilations, and excretions so that every organic action can continue,” and is applied “not just to organic bodies but also to various interactions in one or multiple ecosystems, even on a global scale, whether ‘industrial metabolism’ or ‘social metabolism’” (Saito 2018, 69-70).
In any material system, whether it involves bodies or machines, or if it occurs at the scale of an individual or a society, necessarily involves a metabolic exchange of chemicals and energy to keep that system in motion. Like the economy at large, metabolism is here characterised as a temporal relation, describing the rates of exchange between a given system and its natural foundations. What has emerged under capitalism, however, is a particular disjunction between natural and economic temporalities, tearing an ever widening metabolic rift between them. We now face a “contradiction of nature’s time versus capital’s”—as Paul Burkett writes:
“Capitalism’s accelerated throughput involves a conflict between the time nature requires to produce and absorb materials and energy versus the competitively enforced dynamic of maximum monetary accumulation in any given time period by all available material means” (2014, 112).
Under capitalism the metabolism between humanity and nature is pushed out of joint, not simply in a Malthusian trap of consumption outstripping production, but through the complex web of exchanges and processes by which capital trades short-term gains in profit for a long future of pernicious outcomes. McKenzie Wark remarks:
“Marx’s example of metabolic rift was the way nineteenth-century English farming extracted nutrients such as nitrates from the soil, which growing plants absorbed, which farmers harvested as crops, which workers in the cities ate to fuel their industrious labors, and who would then shit and piss the waste products out of their private metabolisms. Those waste products, including the nitrates, flow through run-off and sewers and pour out to sea. Whole industries for making artificial fertilizer would arise to address this rift—in turn causing further metabolic rifts elsewhere” (2015, xiv).
Whereas previous societies met natural limits at local levels, in the forms of soil exhaustion and resource depletion, capitalism constantly moves further and further afield to expand the scope of its markets, seize resources from abroad, and dispossess its periphery of labour and lands. Each limit which manifests on a local level is transcended and passed over to seek new sources of accumulation. Yet, as Marx makes clear, “from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it” (1973, 410).
Although able to escape or even feed upon the market fluctuations of natural crises by exploiting the elasticity of material limits, capital cannot overcome these limits entirely, and instead searches widely for means of delaying the inevitable. In Kohei Saito’s words: “Capital always tries to overcome its limitations through the development of productive forces, new technologies, and international commerce, but, precisely as a result of such continuous attempts to expand its scale, it reinforces its tendency to exploit natural forces (including human labor power) in search of cheaper raw and auxiliary materials, foods, and energies on a global scale” (2018, 96). Each temporary crisis overcome only offsets systemic collapse in the present by increasing the scope of the next crisis, so that eventually the entire earth is caught in the metabolic rift and a real global limit is reached.
II: UNDER THE VAMPIRE’S SPELL
With “its blind and measureless drive, its insatiable appetite for surplus labour,” coupled with its relentless feeding upon both present and future life, it is no wonder that Marx gestures toward the vampire to characterise capital (1976, 375). In a now famous passage from Capital’s first volume, Marx describes capital as “dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour,” and elsewhere as driven by a “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” (1976, 342; 367). The vampire emerges here not only as a figure out of time, the dead which will not die, but as a conspicuously metabolic monster, which is driven not by malice or moral failure, but by a primal drive to sustain itself on the vital processes of the living. The vampire as metabolic monstrosity is not original to Marx, and may be found in Liebig’s own writings on agronomy, in which he remarks—on the topic of the imperial seizure of guano and other fertilisers from around the world—that “Great Britain seizes from other countries their conditions of their own fertility… Vampire-like, it clings to the throat of Europe, one could even say of the whole world, sucking its best blood” (Bonneuil & Fressoz 2016, 186-7).
Beyond its polemical flourish, the evocation of the vampire plays the fundamental role of revealing in a single image the hidden mechanisms of capital’s bloodied feast. As Foster and Burkett remark: “Marx’s use of metabolism was not ‘analogical’, but was meant to promote the basis for a materialist and dialectical understanding of the human productive relation to nature” (2016 35-6). Similarly, I wish to argue that capital is not merely like a vampire, but literally exercises a vampiric relation with the living both in its parasitic thirst for accumulation and in the psychic bondage it exercises over its victims. In addition to characterising capital as predominated by metabolic processes, the vampiric metaphor brings with it the connotations of bewitchment, invisibility, and the thraldom of the victim to the vampire. In effect, the conjunction of vampire-capital merges the logic of metabolism with the ideological apparatus that conceals it. As David McNally writes in Monsters of the Market:
“Capital’s great powers of illusion lie in the way it invisibilises its own monstrous formation. In endeavouring to pull off the magic-cap of modernity, Marx sought a confrontation with monstrosity. He set out to reveal the legions of vampires and werewolves that inhere in capital so that they might be banished” (2011, 114).
Just as the time of capitalist production instils in those caught within it the rhythms of industry and the progressive increase of productive forces, the occlusion of its metabolic imbalance exercises its own temporal logic. Capital doesn’t only drain the living of their lifeblood, but does so at times and intervals which, at least for the time being, evade direct perception. Counter to the theories of Max Weber, for whom modernity was the triumph of reason over myth, we may refer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that: “Capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces” (1999, K1a,8). The identification of capital’s metabolic relation to humanity and nature as vampiric goes some way in piercing through the new myths of capitalism’s dream-filled sleep. Firstly, it dispels the ideological haze that disguises the slow desiccation of labour and nature under capitalism as just or necessary. As McNally remarks:
“If there is a Marxist Gothic, then, it is one that insists, amongst other things, on journeying through the night spaces of the capitalist underworld, on visiting the secret dungeons that harbour labouring bodies in pain” (2011, 138).
Secondly, it reveals that the cyclical crises and disasters of capitalism are not abnormalities or irregularities in the upward arch of progress, but are rather the throes of pain of myriad metabolisms caught between the vampire’s fangs. As Benjamin writes:
“The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given. […] Hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now” (1999, N9a,1).
III: WAKE IN FRIGHT
Benjamin’s project of uncovering the dark, magical underbelly of capitalist modernity—what Margaret Cohen (1993) has called a form of “Gothic Marxism”—puts him in welcome company among the vampires and werewolves of Marx’s imaginary. But for all Benjamin’s success as a critic of culture, ideology, and history, his relevance to an ecologically-conscious Marxism is less clear. Writing in Marx’s Ecology, John Bellamy Foster sets himself apart from the Western Marxists for their failure to take the materialist account of nature seriously. “The Frankfurt School,” Foster writes, “developed an ‘ecological’ critique which was almost entirely culturalist in form, lacking any […] analysis of the real, material alienation of nature, for example, Marx’s theory of metabolic rift” (2000, 245).
By way of a conclusion, I’d like to put this claim under pressure on two fronts: Firstly, with the claim that in Benjamin—if not in other Frankfurt thinkers—we do in fact find a thoroughly materialist account of nature, which both refuses any account of history separate from its natural conditions and any theorisation of nature impervious to historical alteration. Secondly, I wish to argue that within Benjamin’s philosophy of nature we also discover hints of a metabolic relation between humanity and nature which will allow us to bridge the gap between a Gothic Marxist critique of ideology and the ecological thought necessary for a twenty-first century Marxism.
From his early works through to his last, Benjamin’s thought returned not only to the question of nature and its place within the course of history, but also the moment when the “antithesis of history and nature” is undone, and “history passes into the setting” as another component of a purely material world (2019, 81). This entry of history into nature—and nature into history—preoccupies Benjamin’s thought in his final unfinished work, The Arcades Project, in which the history of the nineteenth century is conceived in naturalistic terms as composed of fossils from a vanished age. From out of the rubble of this earlier stage of capitalism, Benjamin pieces together a genealogy of late capitalism to reveal the ideological effects that emerge when history and nature are conceptually divorced. As Susan Buck-Morss writes:
“Whenever theory posited ‘nature’ or ‘history’ as an ontological first principle, this double character of the concepts was lost, and with it the potential for critical negativity: either social conditions were affirmed as ‘natural’ without regard for their historical becoming, or the actual historical process was affirmed as essential” (1977, 54).
In Benjamin’s own terms, so long as the modern environments of “architecture, fashion,” and “even the weather” are left unconsidered as products of human intention, “they are as much natural processes as digestion, breathing, and the like. They stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges” (1999, K1,5). What we take to be merely “natural,” whether it is the drive for profit or a change in the weather, exists for us only unconsciously until we recognise the mutually constitutive relationship between these seemingly natural facts and the history which we collectively create. Without this moment of awakening to our own natural history, the course of historical events seem inevitable and beyond our grasp. “To the dreaming collective,” writes Benjamin, “the decline of an economic era seems like the end of the world itself” (1999, R2,3). In our own era of apocalyptic foreboding we are in dire need of a politics able to pierce through this myth of inevitable catastrophe to confront the ecological and economic disjunction at its heart.
Despite its seeming inevitability as a fact of nature, the “ecological rift is, at bottom, the product of a social rift: the domination of human being by human being” (Foster et al. 2010, 47). “Accordingly,” writes Kohei Saito, “Marx’s socialist project demands the rehabilitation of the humans-nature relationship through the restriction and finally the transcendence of the alien force of reification (2018, 133). Or, as Benjamin put it many years prior, the vital task of our technical knowledge “is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man” (1979, 104). Here we see clearest the metabolic potential of Benjamin’s natural philosophy: To master not nature itself but the relation between humanity and nature is to understand the metabolic exchanges which conjoin earthly processes and human affairs. But what Benjamin’s writing also makes clear is that an understanding of our metabolic relation to the earth is not sufficient in itself. To be politically effective an ecologically-conscious Marxism must be coupled with an insight into the ideological structures that obscure our metabolic relations and instil in us a faith in temporalities of infinite progress or inevitable disaster. The vampiric grip of capital, which obscures the means of its mastery even as it deploys them upon humanity and nature alike, can only be cast off by a conscious and collective mastery of our relations to nature and the initiation a new metabolism with the earth.
Benjamin, Walter. One Way Street and Other Writings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: Verso, 1979.
——. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap, 1999.
——. The Origin of the German Trauerspiel. Translated by Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.
Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Verso, 2016.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origins of Negative Dialectics. New York: The Free Press, 1977.
Burkett, Paul. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014.
Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Foster, John Bellamy. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Foster, John Bellamy, and Paul Burkett. Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.
Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.
Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin Books, 1973.
——. Capital Volume I. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1976.
McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Saito, Kohei. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. New Delhi: Dev Publishers, 2018.
Tombazos, Stavros. Time in Marx: The Categories of Time in Marx’s Capital. Translated by Christakis Georgiou. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014.
Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. London: Verso, 2015.