Research Article https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775819871964
Volume: 38 issue: 1, page(s): 12-34
Article first published online: September 5, 2019; Issue published: February 1, 2020
Arun Saldanha, Department of Geography, Environment, and Society, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. Email: email@example.com
The Anthropocene names the epoch wherein humans have become the main geological agent on the planet’s surface. But which humans, and since when? Dating the onset of the Anthropocene is a political and ontological as much as a scientific act. This essay argues the Anthropocene is inexorably racial because it flows out of a capitalist system which requires racializing populations and environments from early modernity to the present and into the future. The essay contends that racial capitalism should be a central category in explaining the onset of the Anthropocene. The focus will be on investigating whether it makes sense to take the European discovery of the Americas and the genocide against its original inhabitants as threshold of a new geological epoch. Following the radicalization of Marx in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, it will be suggested that though colonization and slavery were essential for modern globalization to emerge, capital embarked on its self-perpetuating destructive trajectory through industrialization. Structural racism was transmuted and continues to characterize the global ecological crisis.
The Anthropocene names the epoch wherein humans have become the main geological agent on the planet’s surface. The impact of human activity on the planet is such that a hundred millions years from now, hypothetical geologists will be able to notice the earth went through changes that will still be measurable. But which changes do we select as definite, and when did they happen? Which humans? Dating the onset of the Anthropocene is a political and ontological as much as a scientific act, as scientists realize very well, though seldom admit. Defining the Anthropocene intrinsically carries with it a laying of culpability for the past and a responsibility for the future, while the research on how geological agency is distributed across time and across species cannot but involve the deepest of moral conundrums. Since the processes gathered under the Anthropocene umbrella are almost all self-reinforcing and nefarious for ecosystems, hence possibly jeopardizing the viability of our species itself, the question is properly existential: who or what is to take care of humanity’s survival?
Some social science scholars and political activists have sought to debunk the Anthropocene concept altogether, pointing out that only a small proportion of the human population has in the last few centuries caused the discussed immense environmental changes, from the annihilation of Indigenous ecologies and the ever more desperate mining of fossil fuels and rare earths, to overfishing and agribusiness. As Oxfam (2015) pointed out during the Paris climate negotiations, the carbon footprint of the world’s richest 1% could be as much as 175 times that of the poorest 10%. With that 1% owning half the world’s wealth, decisions on how the economy runs are obscenely skewed. Poverty and vulnerability are just like in colonial times concentrated in Africa, South America, and Asia. On a deeper level, the Promethean subjugation of ecosystems and the exploitative division of labor has from ancient times been premised on patriarchy, that is, the usurpation of social power and discourse itself by adult men. Rather than humanity as such, which has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, these critics (e.g. Mirzoeff, 2016) point out that it is the white captains of the capitalist system who have created a new geological epoch.
With help from renegade Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, this essay agrees the key agent behind environmental destruction is the capitalist system as fed by European colonization and patriarchy, yet emphasizes the power of those captains depends on the inhuman self-replication of capital, that is, on the most deterritorialized and deterritorializing force of modernity. For sure, in certain corners of critical geography, “capital” accrued such an expansive explanatory force that it became taken-for-granted and perhaps quasi-theological. Even if Marx first formulated a systematic concept of capital, this essay attempts to rediscover this category after the critiques of the sclerotic tendencies of Marxism by poststructuralist, feminist, black, postcolonial, Indigenous, environmentalist, and other left theorists. To offer a starting date for the Anthropocene and explaining capitalism, one cannot but inhabit the productive tensions between Marxism and these cognate critical discourses.
In this essay, I will keep the term Anthropocene, then, precisely in order to wrest it from the mainstream mystifications of how the planet came to this situation. Following the recent suggestion of Françoise Vergès (2017), we can call the Anthropocene an inexorably racial regime because modern society has at crucial junctures had to discriminate populations in order to expand itself. We will see one crucial debate involves the proposition of Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (2018) that the Anthropocene is based on the decimation of Indigenous Americans. The emergence of capitalism in Europe was built on the displacement and exploitation of others elsewhere, especially but not only across the Atlantic Ocean, a process we will see is captured well by the Marxian concept of primitive accumulation. But I will argue a framework is required to explain racial capitalism’s more recent developments as well, after it abandoned displacement and slave-trade as central features. That the new planetary phase is intrinsically a “racial” phenomenon means that contingently distinguishable human bodies are differentially positioned in relation to not just the state and the city, but the profound geological and ecological transformations which were required for “modern” society to emerge at all. The racializing effects of capital have been intrinsic, though they continually shift.
Hence anthropos as a site of (r)evolutionary thresholds is always already subdivided into subsets which are interpellated in sharply different ways by the earth and by world-history. As Indigenous, feminist, black, and critical race theorists have long since demonstrated, the discursive figure of “man” belies structural injustices so entrenched that upending them requires redefining the basic terms for talking about the social at all (Mbembe, 2017; Mirzoeff, 2016; Sharpe, 2016; Wynter, 2013). Anthropos is fundamentally at odds with itself, and this is what makes it thoroughly political (see also Clark and Gunaratnam, 2017). When the extreme geographic disparities highlighted by the umbrella term “Anthropocene”—of footprints, consumption levels, vulnerability—are explained, the concept of “the human species” loses its humanist innocence. Geographers have long pointed out that what is called development in one place happens within the same global ecosystem making life tougher or impossible elsewhere (Harvey, 2010; Yusoff, 2018). The prospect of hundreds of millions of so-called climate refugees follows from the fact that the distribution of mobility and war technologies is already highly racialized, and it has been for centuries (Baldwin and Bettini, 2017). To retrieve a radical potential of the Anthropocene concept is to alert publics of the possibility that imminent catastrophes are to be appreciated on the scale of millions of years, requiring concomitantly epochal forms of responsibility, solidarity, and upheaval. While the left has long pointed out the status quo’s hidden destructiveness, now even the most cautious mainstream science is understanding intergenerational injustices are built into the economic megamachine itself.
When the Anthropocene was first proposed as new geological epoch or era in earth science, it was suggested it started with the initial Industrial Revolution as fuelled by coal-powered steam engines (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). The search has since then been for a so-called golden spike or Global boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), a location and date at which planet-wide signals are sufficiently measurable that a qualitative shift from the Holocene can be inferred. On this criterion of detectability, radioactive fallout from nuclear testing is a clearer marker than changes in the carbon, nitrogen, and other cycles (or presumed future fossils for that matter). As reported by Jan Zalasiewicz et al. (2015), earth science is now leaning towards determining a GSSP in the 1950s or 1960s, but the decision is still to be made. This essay agrees with the initial intuition that the onset of the Anthropocene lies in the later 18th century, not on empirical grounds, however, which are beyond my expertise, but explicitly starting from theoretical principles in the humanities insofar as they are coterminous with understanding the particularity of modern times. Alongside the quantitative empiricism of science, we should remember debates about human–environment relations ineluctably involve concepts which have been discussed for centuries and have recently been given new political salience in various left (feminist, black, Marxist, decolonial, etc.) discourses: market society, oppression, universality, the “New World,” “nature,” technology, and so on. Here, the focus will be on the concept of racial capitalism as elaborated through the nonhuman aspect of capital, and we devote a section to other prevalent approaches to racial capitalism. After introducing the politics of the dating debate, we will consider the analysis of the trans-Atlantic contact event in greater detail. Though appreciative of Lewis and Maslin’s suggestion the mass death of native Americans be taken as indicative of the Anthropocene, and though recent developments in the theorization of slavery and blackness are sharpening our views of the profundity of racist violences, I will suggest industrialization has been, in retrospect, more consequential for the planet, even if mass death and slave labor had prepared for it, and will continue to characterize it into the future.
One or several Anthropocenes?
As an intrinsically temporal concept, the Anthropocene cannot but be dated. Moreover, as it pertains to a geological series, it must abide by or at least engage the methodological rules of that series for its coherence. That is, it must be based on a signal (fossil, sedimentary, chemical, radiometric, geomagnetic, etc.), a condensation in a certain location on Earth representing the planetary average and detectible millions of years from now. In August 2016, the International Congress of the Geological Sciences voted in Cape Town that the Anthropocene is real, but when it followed the Holocene is yet to be decided. Amongst scientists, the debate about the start date, technically called the GSSP, continues to rage (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). The propositions that an “early Anthropocene” began with the human use of fire between two and one million years ago, which incrementally changed the distribution of vegetation and animals and levels of atmospheric carbon, and the more influential theory that irreversible anthropogenic planetary changes commenced 10,000–8000 BCE, the period of the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture and settlement, are clearly defended by more conservative earth scientists, archeologists, and paleontologists. When we analyze earth science’s premises and methods, it quickly becomes clear it inevitably comprises an ideological struggle, insofar as evidence is interpreted and conceptualized in conflicting ways (see Angus, 2016). For both science and the humanities, it does not make sense to locate the cusp of the new epoch thousands of years ago if the recent changes associated with “modern times” are more consequential. But by asking when the Anthropocene commenced after the medieval period, we are forced to confront some productive tensions.
While there might be broad agreement amongst many in activist circles and the critical humanities and social science literature that a confluence of oppressive social relations lies at the heart of the global environmental crisis, there are many ways of understanding “racism” and “capitalism” and how they relate to colonial settlement, heteropatriarchy, science and technology, and nonhuman entities. Indigenous and decolonial critiques in the Americas have emphasized the arrival of Columbus and the subsequent and ongoing process of eliminating the socioecological arrangements of the original inhabitants (Davis and Todd, 2017). Black and critical race theorists have unearthed the basis of globalization in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery (Wynter, 2013; Yusoff, 2018). Postcolonial and subaltern studies focus more on the question how peoples in Asia and Africa could acquiesce to Europeans transforming their economies and ecologies for the profit of the metropoles, a question less of extermination or enslavement than of subordination (Chakrabarty, 2012). Pacifists point out the world’s nuclear arsenal is capable of destroying the entire terrestrial habitat several times over (Schell, 1982), while futurists, both utopian and dystopian, argue the profound dependency of human life on computers should be central to how our common future is to be thought (compare Bastani, 2019 and Berry, 2018). Some radical environmentalists lay the blame with civilization or even humanity itself (Jensen, 2016). Finally, Marxist discourse seeks to provide these relatively newer progressive positions the crucial concept of capitalism, demonstrating how conquest, enslavement, and cultural and technological domination have been intrinsic to Europe’s ascendance into industrial hegemony (Foster et al., 2010). So different thematic foci can correspond to different starting dates for our planetary emergency: the dawn of Homo sapiens, the Neolithic Revolution, 1492, the centuries over which trans-Atlantic slavery was institutionalized, the Industrial Revolution from about 1750, the age of empires and nationalisms, the atom bomb and Cold War, the birth of mass consumption in the 1950s, or the advent of the internet.
Could we not be content with a pluralist approach in which there are multiple Anthropocenes without one exact start date, which would have always in some way accompanied the human species and which have merely intensified with each of these thresholds? If stratigraphy itself requires strict periodization, could “Anthropocene” not mean different things in different discourses, for different political aims? It is true periodization is often a teleological exercise, its Eurocentric totalizing tendencies on a par with those of cartography and Linnaean taxonomy. Just like with the related concepts civilization, progress, evolution, modernity, and globalization, the debate about the Anthropocene’s starting date is ridden with the problem of how to locate places as “further” on a trajectory of change which is then taken to be desirable or inevitable. But the most important argument against the skepticism about the term amongst social scientists (Bonneil and Fressoz, 2016; Malm, 2015) is that in sharp contrast to the discourses of modernization and progress, almost all uses of the term are tinged with deep worry about the future. Certainly, the alarmism has a tendency towards ethnocentrism and is increasingly hijacked by racist nationalism and Malthusian pseudo-solutions. But simultaneously, it cannot be favorable to those in power if they can be shown to be maintaining a trajectory possibly leading, if not to the extinction of humans, at least to massive deprivation and uncertainty. As climate activists across the world from a wide range of backgrounds show, the deep worry intrinsic to the Anthropocene concept can be politicized.
Joining the dating debate therefore does not necessarily erect the new geological epoch as monolithic or transcendent, a grand end-point which European men as privileged bearers of history (or even of evolution) led the rest of the world to. It is precisely to demonstrate how the processes that led to the new earthly reality are highly uneven and fiercely contested. Far from allowing the Anthropocene concept to once again reinforce hegemonic sentiments about societal maturation, deciding on a start date could underline the utterly contingent nature of all life if it can be shown to follow from assemblages (of capital, patriarchy, and racism) that could well not have existed at all. Another epistemico-political aim here, however, is to urge critical human geography to engage Western physical science so that they can urge it to become politicized (see also Clark and Gunaratnam, 2017). Even if it turns out the humanities suggest a different start date than scientists do, it will be because the former can lay claim to a more rigorous understanding of what exactly is anthropogenic about the new epoch—what makes the world of anthropos go around.
Primitive accumulation and racial capitalism
The tendency towards orthodoxy in the Marxist legacy has often blocked it from enriching itself with other critical or left discourses. The concept of “racial capitalism” as propounded by Cedric Robinson (1983), for example, is first of all meant to correct Marx’s and socialism’s relative neglect of the physical violence and ideological processes of slavery, racism, and nationalism, which modernity is constructed from. Eric Williams’ classic Capitalism and Slavery (Williams, 1944) had already demonstrated how the wealth amassed from the plantation economies in the Caribbean and the southern United States was directly fed into the burgeoning landscapes of factories and rapid urbanization of Northern England, and then the rest of Europe. We can conclude from Robinson’s wide-ranging historical analysis that capitalism is from the beginning not just transcontinental and transoceanic but a runaway process intrinsically geared to expand itself by exploiting populations deemed less worthy of life, without concern for long-term ramifications. While Marx downplays the role of race in the development of capitalism, his overall framework allows for correcting his own oversight. Something Robinson lays less stress on but what is crucial for my argument here is that once capital was established as feedback loop by the factories of Northern England after some two centuries of slavery, it insinuated itself into one social formation after another. No guild, ethnic prejudice, border, or sultan could hold back the new magic formula of making profits through industrial technologies and wage-labor.
Though manufacturing, credit/debt, and reinvestment had existed for many centuries, the abstract as well as violent force of money could only come into its own with luxury commodities, especially spices and sugar, and textiles, first wool then cotton (Beckert, 2014; Eichen, 2019). In the last chapters of Volume 1 of Capital, Marx (1992) famously writes of what the bourgeois political economists before him called “primitive” (a better translation is original or primary) accumulation, the concentration of wealth before and necessary for industrialization. From the later Middle Ages, as trade increased amongst market towns, landowners in Europe gradually consolidated land by both legal and violent means, causing mass impoverishment amongst peasants, whose labor was henceforth available at very low wages and whose itinerancy was often made illegal (cf. Federici, 2004).
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat. (Marx, 1992: 895)
In the British Isles especially, the policy of so-called enclosure was often difficult to distinguish from legalized theft. It displaced thousands of small farmers and over some three centuries (14th to 18th) created the propertyless masses which the factories would put to work at new, more efficient machinery. Some Marxist historians like Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999) argue England’s strong economic position was chiefly thanks to these enclosures, a large domestic market, and durable infrastructure. However, the theory of primitive accumulation (even in its mainstream versions) holds that there was already a world-system of transoceanic interactions which industrialization could tap into. The profits amassed in the Italian city-states from maritime trade, and then in the Iberian peninsula from its ruthless plunder of the Americas, especially of their precious metals, was a necessary buildup for the rise of Northwestern Europe, as the latter could benefit from the credit and the geographical connections forged by the former (Arrighi, 2009). Furthermore, as the Dutch, British, French, then Belgians and Germans started colonizing as well, it would become clear how primitive accumulation in the colonies became a sort of enclosure policy continued by other means, a general process of soft and hard coercion David Harvey renamed accumulation by dispossession (see Harvey, 2010). To understand why the capitalist state is intrinsically expansionist and racialized, the concept of primitive accumulation is crucial.
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black-skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. (Marx, 1992: 1147)
Updating these illustrious remarks about modernity’s “idyllic” origins, Silvia Federici (2004) theorizes early-modern misogynous violence like witch-hunting, the origins of the nuclear family, and subordination of women’s labor as entirely implicated in the establishment of the capitalist system. Jason Moore (2015) has added that primitive accumulation also encompasses a belligerent exploitation of slaves both Indigenous and imported as well as nonhuman forces like minerals, energy sources, and fertilizers (what Moore calls “cheap nature”). Racialization can be considered a requirement, seen in hindsight, for capitalism to take hold as intercontinental economic system (Eichen, 2019). Following Robinson and Moore, Vergès (2017) argues for defining the Anthropocene/Capitalocene as deeply racialized, against the natural scientists and environmental historians who often erase systemic violence from their narratives of ecological change. Echoing environmental justice advocates, Vergès points out the adverse effects of global warming and pollution (think of plastics, e-waste, and noise) are felt more intensely by brown and black populations. Just like early-modern Europeans claimed entire continents and oceans and grew powerful from coerced labor, the vulnerability to environmental disaster of some groups today systematically follows from the actions of still mostly white elites.
While the first defenders of the Anthropocene idea in earth science noted a threshold of the earth’s environmental systems was crossed in Britain in the latter 18th century (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000), they refrain from unpacking why this event occurred at all. In science, capital’s violent logic is obscured just as it is elsewhere. Following the liberal canon, Crutzen takes steam-power to be the driving force of industrialization and 1784, the year James Watt patented his second steam engine, as symbolic of the threshold between Holocene and Anthropocene, even if it cannot be a GSSP because nothing geologically discernible occurred that year. But Andreas Malm (2016) argues the liberal canon is historically inaccurate: the coal-powered steam engine became central to industry only later, and British factories were during their initial boom mostly powered by water. Retrieving Marx’s classic argument, Malm argues it is not steam but the increasing availability of capital and cheap labor which triggered the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Technology is given shape only within the matrix of socioeconomic difference, as are its disastrous effects. Capitalism’s love affair with fossil fuels and the resulting unprecedented changes to atmospheric chemistry were not inaugurated with Watt’s engines, but by capital amassed through primitive accumulation.
It is important to understand how racial capitalism reproduces itself ideologically by masking its systematic violences while providing benefits to those in power. Even if capital is itself an unintentional process, its relentless logic of self-enrichment makes individual capitalists, politicians, and bureaucrats make decisions with increasingly adverse effects on others and the environment. Malm writes in the beginning of his book:
Global warming is the unintended by-product par excellence. A cotton manufacturer of early nineteenth-century Lancashire who decided to forgo his old waterwheel and invest in a steam engine, erect a chimney and order coal from a nearby pit did not, in all likelihood, entertain the possibility that his act could have any kind of relationship to the extent of the Artic sea ice […] Whether one chooses to ignore, suppress, deny or agonise over the knowledge of what is happening, it is there, in the air, heavier by the year. And yet the descendants of the Lancashire manufacturers, whose dominion now span the globe, are taking decisions on a daily basis to invest in new oil wells, new coal-fired power plants, new airports, new highways, new liquified natural gas facilities, new machines to replace human workers, so that emissions are not only continuing to grow but are doing so at a higher speed. […] How did we get caught up in this mess? (2016: 1–3, my italics)
These kinds of observations need to be read with an attention to embodied difference traditionally underplayed in the Marxist literature. Against the hegemonic liberal idea that racism is mostly about interpersonal prejudice, the question whether a cotton manufacturer is “a racist” is moot. What is incontrovertible is that he profits from an overall circuit involving the displacement of Indigenous Americans, the capture of slaves within Africa, brutal labor practices in the plantations, corrupt monopolies in Asia, surplus-labor in his factory, cut-throat competition in London, geopoliticking across European capital cities, warfare everywhere between, and millennia of patriarchy (Beckert, 2014; Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014; Williams, 1944). Similarly, in the 20th century, the infrastructures around oil and automobility are steeped in institutional racism, from the demolishment of black neighborhoods for the highways facilitating white flight in the US to Bangladeshi construction workers in the Qatari desert and Chinese-led mineral extraction in central Africa. And it is essential to note the “yet” in Malm’s quote: what motivates humans to continue on the path of obvious destruction of other people, other species? Which tiny groups benefit from a disastrous system? Why do millions vote liars and sociopaths into office? And how long can the facts of geophysics be ignored? Addressing today’s planetary “mess” will require a concept of racial and gender ideology lacking in most accounts of it.
Capital as axiomatic
In order to understand the seeming inexorability of the Anthropocene and its devastating racializing effects, the traditional Marxist focus of class and political-economic analysis seems insufficient. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) nevertheless strictly follow Marx when they conceptualize capital as an abstract, altogether inhuman form of exchange. For the “mature” Marx of Capital, the irrational nature of capital is exactly what makes it capable of reorganizing the earth in its own image, regardless of ideology and tradition. At the time of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels (2005) still identified the bourgeoisie as the revolutionary subject of modernity, but we should reread its famous passages as conceptualizations of capital instead:
The bourgeoisie [capital] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois [capitalist] epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie [capital] over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. (Marx and Engels, 2005: 44)
Capital’s essence is to penetrate, scoop up, and render exchangeable all bodies, things, and landscapes, and meanwhile obfuscate its own workings. Deleuze and Guattari put emphasis on the mysterious power of money to put a value on absolutely anything. But they also follow Marx in insisting that capital requires barriers in order to renew itself, an argument well-known in geography through Harvey’s work (see Harvey, 2010). Capital became the determining factor only because it is hindered by political and traditional as well as geophysical and physiological obstacles. There is no space here to fully elaborate a Deleuze–Guattarian critical-geographical framework, but it starts by radicalizing the Marxian concept of capital and critique of state power (Alliez and Lazzarato, 2018; Sibertin-Blanc, 2016). Against both their faddish reputation in the humanities and a suspicion amongst Marxists, Deleuze and Guattari are far from vitalist mystics unencumbered with geographical injustices. In fact, the attention in their work, especially A Thousand Plateaus (1987), to the unsurpassable fluidity of capital in conjunction with sexual desires, racist imagery (or “faciality”), and mechanization, as well as their idea of “the earth” as factor in world-history, can entwine fruitfully with feminist and decolonial discourses and potentially overcome the tendencies towards philosophical dualism and reductionism which continue to plague the more traditional Marxist critiques (Saldanha, 2017).
The central concept Deleuze and Guattari (1987) propose to highlight the inhuman explosiveness of capital is the “axiomatic.” The capitalist economy continually invents quasi-automatic mechanisms for profit-making they call “axioms.” Far from being in essence linked to liberal democracy, capitalism takes many forms, with authoritarian, criminal, and even state-socialist regimes all procuring ever-new ways of feeding the feedback loop of money. Following world-systems theory (see also Arrighi, 2009), Deleuze and Guattari contend this continual reinvention of capital as it spreads explains the geographic unevenness of the system in which even noncapitalism (economies without banking, cross-border trade, or reinvestment of profits) continues to exist:
the international capitalist axiomatic effectively assures the isomorphy of the diverse formations only where the domestic market is developing and expanding, in other words, in ‘the center’. But it tolerates, in fact it requires, a certain peripheral polymorphy, to the extent that it is not saturated, to the extent that it actively repels its own limits; this explains the existence, at the periphery, of heteromorphic social formations, which certainly do not constitute vestiges or transitional forms since they realize an ultramodern capitalist production (oil, mines, plantations, industrial equipment, steel, chemistry), but which are nonetheless precapitalist, or extracapitalist, owing to other aspects of their production and to the forced inadequacy of their domestic market in relation to the world market. When international organization becomes the capitalist axiomatic, it continues to imply a heterogeneity of social formations, it gives rise to and organizes its ‘Third World’. (1987: 436–437)
Capital’s paradox is that it is both immensely productive and immensely destructive of social formations and ecologies, and that it homogenizes the world by encouraging heterogeneity. But with feminist and decolonial critiques in mind, we should add the renown “creative destruction” neoliberal economists elevate to quasi-divine principle has an intrinsic racial and gender bias insofar as bosses and politicians of the core countries make decisions that cause unemployment, war, famine, pollution, extreme weather, and stressed households in the peripheries, continuing the callousness of colonial days. Men in suits make decisions about arms and mining or food and fuel prices on Wall Street and in the City of London, but also in Hong Kong and Riyadh, driving farmers to suicide in India and refugees to flee Yemen or East Congo. But the men in suits must continually reinvest their profits or they risk being outcompeted: nobody masters capital’s fluidity. The institutional racism inheres in the fact that in the process of fiercely competing with one another, these capitalists can lay entire societies and ecosystems to waste and justify it as bringing “development” or simply “doing business.”
Empires and wealthy merchants have been aggressively expanding their reach for millennia. However, thanks to its enigmatic and singularly effective axiomatic, only capital could have pursued a truly “planetary” agenda. This diffusedness and proliferating reliance on other forces is exactly what amounts to its capacity to create a new phase in the evolution of the earth. Analyses of the role of capital in global environmental destruction show the disaster-prone nature of capital is part of its normal functioning (Angus, 2016; Foster et al., 2010; Kovel, 2007). The child soldiers, toxic sludge, detention camps, sex tourism, ocean garbage patches, smog, and unfinished ghost cities are the logical result of the self-augmentation of capital as much as the glitzier spaces of airports and cyberspace. All the famous hockey-stick graphs associated with the Anthropocene are ultimately materializations of the exponential spirality of capital, and even mainstream commentators are anxious about where these compound processes are heading. Qua axiomatic capital has no conscience, because it is not conscious. It is a very simple algorithmic process capitalists themselves are caught up in. The Anthropocene could only emerge because of such a runaway process, whereas previous transformations brought to the planet by humans, from fire to polders, all had their geographic limitations built into them. Though Deleuze and Guattari (1987) are in broad agreement with Harvey’s (2010) characterization of capital as the quintessential productive principle of globalization, especially in the form of finance, their concept of axiomatic places more emphasis on capital’s uncontrollable and inhuman aspects while never losing sight of how money enlists consumers’, bankers’, and politician’s desires.
It makes philosophical sense, then, to date the Anthropocene’s beginning to late-18th-century Lancashire and its new wage-labor-powered industrial regime. Certainly, this emergence was no simple “point” because it was made possible by financial inputs from London and the East India Company as well as the Atlantic slave economy set up much earlier by the Iberians and Italians. But what is important to note for understanding our global predicament is that the techno-economic magic which happened there would become planet-wide over the following two centuries. This becoming-global of the capitalist formula only happened because it could not have been invented and commanded by any one state or group in any one ecosystem, yet could overtake them all. But the way in which money pits populations against each other is all too human. That capital is a quasi-automatic process tending toward ubiquity does not mean that it has not been profusely contested at every moment it conjured another commodity-chain and marketplace.
Given the fundamental driver of the Anthropocene is capital, calling our epoch the “Capitalocene” with Jason Moore (2015: chapter 7) could seem attractive. He dates its onset in “the long sixteenth century” because the twin forces of genocide and slavery were then consolidated in conjunction with banking. But aiming to critique geology from the outside, Moore’s term betrays its political color without being able to do much about the spread of the term it deprecates. By emphasizing only capital, it has to underestimate the profundity of the earth processes occurring under and before capitalism, thereby missing the extreme contingency of the capture of flows of matter, energy, and labor-power which capital must continually attempt. The axiomatic comes into existence precisely because this capture is often fraught with tensions and setbacks. Similarly, when Jake Kovel (2007) calls capital the “enemy of nature,” he cancels the possibility of a geohistorical understanding of capitalism as emergent from socioecological assemblages which have to align to create value. In the Deleuze–Guattarian framework, capital is instead fully part of the biophysical world, uniquely able to bend nonhuman forces to its wishes, very friendly indeed to human desire and the generativity of life forms and minerals. Naming capital the sovereign force over and against “nature” swings us back into the kind of determinism in which technology or the bourgeoisie is in control of life, when what is needed is a paradigm shift acknowledging that capital entirely depends on and is ever vulnerable to earthly exigencies. For that, I would suggest the Enlightenment concept of “nature” which Marxism inherited be replaced with Deleuze and Guattri’s ontology of multiplicity and flow.
To conclude, while Marxists are correct to call out the technocratic and teleological biases in mainstream stories about industrialization, Malm (2015) is wrong to call the Anthropocene but a bourgeois “myth.” No doubt the Anthropocene concept potentially reinforces the most Promethean and Eurocentric mythologies ever, but that shows just how important it is to redefine it. There needs to be a modicum of agreement that Earth has indeed gone through a qualitative shift in order for the debate about what caused it to be held convincingly, even if mainstream science habitually ignores racism, capital, and patriarchy as explanatory factors. When the name “Anthropocene” is decried in advance because of its sensationalism or partiality, the opportunity is missed for partaking in what may prove to be the most important naming debate of our lifetime.
Ontologies of blackness and indigeneity
A growing number of theorists are elaborating on racial capitalism, though not always using the term, working broadly in the Fanonian tradition but pushing the ontological envelope on how race pries open the consistency of the notion of humanity as such (from Chakrabarty, 2012 in postcolonial theory to Yusoff, 2018 in new-materialist feminism via Mirzoeff, 2016 in critical race studies). It can be said there is an “ontological turn” in the theorization of race in that long-standing philosophical questions of “man,” being, life, death, temporality, historicity, embodiment, the thing, the earth, language as such, and the limits of knowledge have come to the fore (Wynter, 2013). In black studies, the ontological turn often has implicit and explicit echoes of Heidegger, ethically assuming an “Afropessimist” or even black-nihilist stance in that the hopefulness associated with African American political aspirations is shown to itself perpetuate the structural erasure of the possibility of black human-being as inaugurated in the Middle Passage and the commodification of African bodies, which are continued directly in the present (Sexton, 2016; Sharpe, 2016; Warren, 2018). Antiblackness is in this literature a fundamental feature of both modernity and scholarly thought itself. The erasure of Indigenous peoples has a similar and related profundity, and the category of settler-colonialism has in recent years allowed Indigenous scholars to radically question the legal, metaphysical, and political parameters of the socius (Byrd, 2011; Coulthard, 2014; Whyte, 2018; Wolfe, 2016). While there is no space to do justice to the nuances and sophistication of this new effervescence in black, Indigenous, and decolonial theoretical discourse—in particular their varying relations to Marxism, feminism, ecological thought, and poststructuralism—their growing international influence warrants some brief comments to distinguish the approach sketched here.
First, while the social death imparted on Indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans are certainly two originary catastrophes forming the basis of global modernity and systematically repressed in discourse, the question is not only how they are entwined, but how they interact with later violent as well as ostensibly more benevolent racializing processes, from the European conquest of the Pacific to multiculturalism in Scandinavia and Singapore, from Soviet Union ethnic policies to the exploitation of South Asian workers in the Middle East and Palestinian workers in Israel. Insofar as capital intrinsically “aims” to become-planetary, we cannot limit ourselves to the Atlantic world, or even primitive accumulation, when explaining its racial implications. Following internationalist black feminists like Angela Davis and historians of global settler-colonialism like Patrick Wolfe (2016), racial capitalism can be seen to have from the beginning involved multiple continents at once, potentializing all of the human species and planet for marketization, with varying degrees of annihilatory biopower and differential inclusion.
Second, pointing out that coercion, warfare, and letting die are at the heart of the global system does not necessarily deny the forcefulness of more seductive ideological processes. To put it bluntly, there must be more benignness to the capitalist system or it would have been overthrown long ago. Deleuze and Guattari’s work insists on the immense functionality of consumerism in chaining populations to the very megamachine which oppresses them. When Glen Coulthard (2014) takes aim at Canada’s liberal politics of recognition which slots its Indigenous peoples into a capitalist state while leaving intact the property codes which have always benefited white settlers, he tells Marx(ists) primitive accumulation encompasses not only the violences of genocide but an inculcation of possessive individualism amongst Native populations which continues unabated today (cf. Hartman, 1997 on such individualism amongst legally emancipated African Americans). If Wolfe and Coulthard conceive settler-colonialism (and primitive accumulation) as a “structure” rather than an “event,” they are in effect saying it had to transform itself from a regime of outright elimination and dispossession into a more subtle one of legalistic recognition, exploitation, and sentimental exoticization. This is not to say physical violence against Indigenous peoples is no longer prevalent. Ontologically, however, following Deleuze and Guattari (1987), more than annihilation, it is life, flow, desire, and productivity that racial capitalism feeds off, and this makes it all the more insidious.
In Christina Sharpe’s influential theorization (2016), blackness is a hole in human “being” itself, the reduction of a part of humanity to thinghood. Like others in the Afropessimist idiom, Sharpe (2016: 11–14) challenges the hegemonic assumption that the Shoah embodies modernity’s most radical evil, noting the violences of trans-Atlantic slavery not only include the still-ongoing eradication of sociocultural rootedness but have been neglected and misrepresented. In a move parallel to Coulthard’s on settler-colonialism, Sharpe conceives slavery not as a past event but the anchor of the structure of (Euro-American) society, which is in itself “antiblack” in that it is premised on the total suppression of black subjecthood. She thereby formally emulates a line of European thinkers like Giorgio Agamben on the role that the absolute abjection of Auschwitz plays in constituting the humanist mythology of modernity: if the intrinsic link between modernity and the Shoah must be disavowed for humanity to continue conceiving itself in liberal-progressivist vein, the more unspeakable disaster for Sharpe is that of slavery. But while European Jewishness constituted itself successfully after its near eradication—controversially in the form of Zionism—black being is for Sharpe always already a structural impossibility (black
being as written in Heideggerian typography by Warren, 2018).
Rethinking blackness by way of modernity’s effort to extirpate it, Afropessimism’s position is radical, and it is conscious of the risk of repeating the oft-noted exceptionalist manner in which Israel puts the Shoah to use towards settler-colonial ends (see Wolfe, 2016). Black activists including Angela Davis (in a YouTube video, 2018, with Gayatri Spivak agreeing) have taken issue with this exceptionalist tendency, as inscribed in the term antiblackness and the resurgence of a black nationalism (see also Olaloku-Teriba, 2018 amongst others). Notwithstanding Sharpe’s eloquence in tracing antiblackness from the Middle Passage to refugee drownings in the Mediterranean, a Deleuze–Guattarian approach to racial capitalism differs markedly in that it seeks to map the specific modalities, gradients, and absurdities of institutional racism. Comprehending police brutality, for example, requires concepts like gentrification, securitization, and masculinity, and cannot follow directly from a negativity of blackness at the metaphysical level. We thereby avoid the quasi-theological dispute about which group has historically endured the most suffering. And while the global archives of violence against black peoples must continue to be elaborated, is it the case that slavery and racism seek to absolutely evacuate humanity from the enslaved or incarcerated body? Is it not precisely as humans capable of resistance, farming, crime, and sex that slaves were savagely oppressed? While conceptualizing blackness as dehumanized “nonbeing” makes sense in a Heideggerian framework, for Deleuze and Guattari and (broadly internationalist) feminists like Davis and Spivak, there can be no such sweeping binary between black and everything else (another critique of Afropessimist binarization is found in Day, 2015).
Finally, the historical question is how genocide and slavery prepared for capitalism. The integration of the United States of America as a white-majority nation-state and superpower could only be achieved with rapid immigration, urbanization, and fossil-fuelled transport. During the time when “pioneer” families and farmers were moving in, there were still sizeable areas controlled by Native confederations. When we look at specific regions like William Cronon (1991) does with the Midwest, the eradication of Native ecosystems and the concomitant creation of new European-derived ones—what Alfred Crosby (1986) from a more conservative angle calls “Neo-Europes”—became possible with aggressive new urban assemblages and foodways. White farmers and Indigenous populations have lived in constant tension on the Great Plains. What environmental histories like Cronon show, complementing accounts like Coulthard’s, is that there was a decisive shift in the settling of the American interior when banks could supply loans for parceling land and establishing large infrastructure and industry projects. Tellingly, movies and museums fantasize about the fleeting symbiotic relationships which are supposed to have existed between Indigenous and white. In retrospect, however, such fantasies and the ensuing lamentations about the vanishing Indian were but ideological fig leaves hiding how industrialization in Britain, intra-European imperial wars, and mass consumerism conspired to continue genocide by other means (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). If Indigenous populations had somehow become resistant to Old World diseases and continued using guns and horses efficiently, it is conceivable a patchwork of white and Indigenous states might have persisted, if it were not for a giant wave of capital and migrants coming over from Europe (and later elsewhere). With Indigenous Americans contained and plantation slavery and its quasi-feudal and patriarchal ways outlawed, capital could wipe the continent clean for a new megamachinic arrangement.
Hence ontologizing racial capitalism as always already tethered to slavery and/or genocide avoids the question when exactly “modernity” and the Anthropocene started. For the perspective I am developing, industrialization and related transformations like wage-labor, urbanization, motorized transport, and mass communications are fundamental shifts. While the slave trade and the displacement of Indigenous peoples were essential to enriching Europe for global hegemony, it is manufacturing with its intrinsic relation to proletarianization and slums, accelerating technological innovation, and an irrepressible invitation to consume which spread around the planet, which meant that extermination and coerced labor became slower and more covert processes. Doubtless there are work and mobility conditions approaching chattel slavery in all continents, and there is plenty of biopolitical domination approaching genocide even during alleged peace times. But it is difficult to see how multinational corporations, megacities, and mass migration could have obtained were it not for industrial capitalism overcoming the severe limitations built into the mercantile, plantation, colonial, and eliminationist models.
In the US itself, as scholars from WEB Du Bois (1935) onwards have shown, slavery had to be formally abolished for manufacturing and cities to kick off, spurring processes like the Great Migration of African Americans and, more fortuitously, black music. Following Deleuze and Guattari (and Marx), however dire the extraction of surplus-value from the laboring body, racial capitalism involves some degree (and ideology) of “freedom.” Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) excavation of the terroristic, legal, and psychical aspects of slavery living on after legal Emancipation demonstrates there are strong but disavowed continuities in institutional racism and misogyny. But however violent the post-Emancipation United States has been, from lynching to the prison-industrial complex to the war on crack, there was also the slow rise of black subjectivity, as testified by the black radical tradition to which Hartman herself belongs. She presents one of the finest analyses of the libidinal economies and legal codifications precluding a real black liberation from racial capitalism and individualism, hence of the hypocrisy underneath the official nationalist ideology of “we the people.” Yet an overemphasis on abjection deters from appreciating the enduring plasticity of racism.1 Politically speaking, there must be room, as there is for Du Bois, Fanon, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers, for theorizing how a black elite could possibly emerge against such backdrop of violence and despair, and why it does not dismantle the system of privilege it gains from itself (from Booker Washington to Jay Z). To wit, if blackness is modernity’s quintessential site of abjection, it becomes difficult to explain why the “most powerful man on Earth” has been black. Afropessimists have of course passionately critiqued the deep complicity with an antiblack system shaping Barack Obama and all liberal antiracism, but true to their pessimistic stance consistently eschew formulating where exactly hope for black people (and other minorities) could come from.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can understand why capital was compelled to expunge slavery and feudal territorialities, often pitting itself explicitly against older forms of racism and sexism, as well as colonialism and nationalism. After the Second World War, the system of United Nations and Bretton-Woods explicitly aimed to allow capital to flow planet-wide so as to transcend the genocidal nationalisms and imperialisms which had just led to such destruction, even though the world remained catastrophically divided between East and West. Formal decolonization was on the one hand an egalitarian antiracist project often inspired by Marxism-Leninism, but on the other, it turned out to be a new phase in capital’s expansion under the rubric of development, with China now occupying the strangest systemic role. However hypocritical the reproach of premodern brutalities by industrial capitalism, it has proven tremendously effective.
Following feminist, black, postcolonial/decolonial, Indigenous, and queer critiques, capital cannot be the only system of violence, even if it posits itself as the dominant one. For Deleuze and Guattari, capital is always reconfiguring the “despotic” or “barbarian” assemblages of patriarchy, religion, kinship, cruelty, extraction of resources, and domestication of plants and animals, all with their various racial dimensions (Saldanha and Adams, 2013). There can only be an extreme fluidity of money by virtue of the fixities of borders, commodification, and biopower. And these pseudo-archaic forces, these reterritorializations through the deterritorializing impetus of capital, have their own ecohistories which the multidisciplinary conversations around the Anthropocene are bringing to light. What is required is a nonreductionist ontology which grants that capital strives to bring all of life, in fact all of the thinkable universe, into its preternatural ambit, but it can do so only by virtue of the biophysical and sociocultural characteristics of what it captures. Capital is such a formidable genie precisely because it is conjured from deep within the earth.
The Orbis hypothesis
Two physical geographers, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, have recently suggested our new geological epoch be dated to the near-disappearance of the Indigenous societies of the Americas, that is, the beginning of the 17th instead of the end of the 18th century. The link between planetary transformation and the colonization of the Americas has made their 2015 article in Nature an instant classic (the thesis is taken up again in the general-audience book The Human Planet; Lewis and Maslin, 2018). Ice core samples reveal that in 1610 a peak occurred in a temporary downward trend in global CO2 levels. The general trend is that CO2 has been increasing steadily since the Neolithic because of deforestation and combustion, and accelerating since the industrial and fossil fuel revolutions. For Lewis and Martin, changes in the composition of Earth’s atmosphere are the best indicators of the new geological epoch because unlike fossilized remains, ice sheets, or deposits, they can be easily averaged and are planet-wide. The greenhouse effect caused by accumulated carbon in the atmosphere has drastically changed biological regimes on Earth before and will do so again this very century, ensuring the Anthropocene’s detectability into the far future.
Looking at this 1610 pike, scientists are asking what massive change happened over the 16th century that could suck up 7–10 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 and buck the general trend. Apparently—an irony in world-history—this carbon sequestration happened a mere century before carbon levels would start increasing exponentially. The only reasonable conjecture, Lewis and Maslin argue, is that the dip is an effect of the reforestation that occurred after the quasi-annihilation of Indigenous ecologies by Europeans. Of a population of between 60 and 100 million, within a century, at least 50 million Indigenous Americans perished from enslavement, warfare, epidemics, displacement, and starvation, a formative event in racist violence which David Stannard (1992) calls the American Holocaust. While violence, environmental injustice, and health disparity continue to characterize the relationship between Native and settler from the Arctic to the Amazon, the genocidal and ecological scale of the disappearance of Native Americans in early modernity remains unparalleled (see Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). With Indigenous agriculture, hunting, and use of fire abruptly declining across vast stretches of the coastal Americas, vegetation returned and CO2 levels decreased, lowering the greenhouse effect and cooling the planet, hence extending the so-called Little Ice Age (a cooler period following the Middle Ages with more complex causes). As Charles Mann (2005) has summarized, only recently have non-Indigenous historians and ecologists started accepting the extent to which the pre-Columbian landscape was shaped by burning, farming, cities, trade-networks, empires, and their attendant governance and cosmologies. Of course, the same argument from Indigenous activists and writers has for many decades been marginalized by the mainstream.
There is no scientific consensus yet on whether the planetary effects of the depopulation and reforestation of the Americans could have offset those of the increase in the European settler population with their own agriculture and timber needs, not to forget the growing populations in the rest of the world. But what is intriguing about Lewis and Maslin’s line of argument is that just like the extinction events for earlier geological epochs, the mass death of Indigenous Americans might be of measurable environmental significance. Though they obviously risk “naturalizing” the Columbian holocaust as unavoidable implication of the struggle of survival amongst populations, they also show just how profoundly consequential, indeed contemporary, the genocide is. Understanding there is a geochemistry to the American Holocaust and creation of a “New World” through primitive accumulation can be a powerful counterhistorical rejoinder to the hegemonic forgetting of how the current world-order came into existence. The sheer scale of the intoxicating greed and religious self-righteousness of the conquistadores long noted by Indigenous activists and psychoanalyzed by Stannard becomes all the more breathtaking: the newly systematized racism of early modernity will be legible in tree rings and ice cores thousands or millions of years into the future.
There is a lot to be said for taking 1610 as the golden spike for the Anthropocene, the official year it began. Lewis and Maslin’s “Orbis hypothesis” is the only one proposed which takes the interplay of political-economic and geochemical processes seriously as measurable at the global level (orbis, “world”). Their effort is commendable for appreciating that the decimation—literally, with some ninety percent eliminated—of Indigenous America was, in hindsight, a necessary condition for European global dominance and anthropogenic climate change. Even so, some seemingly naive questions alert us to the moral conundrum immediately presenting itself here: if the Columbian holocaust evidently sequestered carbon, were Native Americans not emitting CO2 into the atmosphere? Yes, but more so were Europe, China, and India, whose agriculture and trade were more intense (see Pomeranz, 2000). And is population decline the answer to excessive greenhouse effect? Obviously not, as it all depends on the unequal footprints of sectors of populations. It must be remembered the footprint of Indigenous fire and agricultural regimes pales in comparison to the onslaught on ecosystems unleashed by elites under colonialism and industrialization. What transpires from the Orbis hypothesis is not only that reforestation is indeed essential to climatic equilibrium, as conservative environmentalists have long maintained, but that an exceptionally violent episode of world-history defines our geological present. At the very least, its moral implications would be to shun the thirst for profit which has demonstrably turned genocidal in the past.
In their call to decolonize the Anthropocene concept, Heather Davis and Zoe Todd (2017) welcome the 1610 date above the other candidates. They appreciate Lewis and Maslin’s more-than-geological framework but take another step by critiquing science’s universalism and demanding a place in the Anthropocene dating debates for embodied and Indigenous ways of knowing. Notwithstanding the importance of analyzing the colonialist orientations of science and the role non-Western cosmologies and practices should play in building sustainable economies, however, this effort to pluralize the Anthropocene concept may dilute its epistemic force, which derives precisely from a stringent yet open scientificity heavily debated in the International Commission on Stratigraphy. If Indigenous and embodied ways of knowing, including art and religion, are critical for understanding the versatility and the violences of human–environment relations, the question is how they can enter the stratigraphic debate about which earth signals will be measurable in the far future. It is important to question the legitimacy of science and its intrinsic Eurocentrism and masculinism, but doing so without engaging it on its own terms leaves its hegemonic position intact, which could impede interdisciplinary and international solidarities in face of the problems both scientists and activists chart. The universality of science is its tremendous strength, but “universality” is universalizability, a potentiality not a given. Like cricket or punk rock, that stratigraphy or evolutionary biology has mostly been the business of white men does not mean others do not or should not participate in it. Furthermore, the scientific imagination certainly can and does learn from traditional cosmologies, just as environmental justice advocates use scientific methods. As geologists come to a decision on the Anthropocene’s GSSP, the “-cene” (kainos, “new”) part of the Anthropocene, the humanities, social sciences, and activists can interrogate anthropos as an embodied reality shaped by the ravages of colonization, industrialization, and patriarchy.
Deciding on a date
There is no doubt the post-Columbian genocide is a defining event in human evolution, partly because its still-existing causes and impacts are so systematically repressed. The question is whether it can satisfactorily explain not just trans-Atlantic mobilities but subsequent developments like the East India companies, the Scramble for Africa, two World Wars, decolonization, the ascendancy of the Arab emirates and China, and the revolution in electronics. The missing concept for understanding all these facets of globalization is capital. While it is encouraging to see “capitalism” mentioned repeatedly in Lewis and Maslin’s book (2018) and they show familiarity with world-systems theory, their take-home message is that the environmental consequences of the European settling of the Americas are a fundamental marker of modernity. As can be inferred even from non-Marxist environmental-historical perspectives on globalization’s unevennesses like that of Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), however important the conquest of the Americas was as condition for “the great divergence” between Europe and China, the take-off of industrialization required, in addition, a radically different way of appropriating minerals and labor-power. The genealogy (or stratigraphy) of the shift from mercantilist to monetary biopower offered in Deleuze and Guattari (1987) changes the importance of Columbus. Though epochal in many ways, and though settler-colonialism continues today, 1492 seems less consequential for the subsequent global order than the conjunction of deterritorialized labor-power and deterritorializing money in Britain from circa 1750. While scholars like Sharpe (2016) hypostatize the Middle Passage and its reach into (Atlantic) modernity, there is sometimes an overemphasis on the event of conquest in Indigenous and decolonial literature, which for both comes at the detriment of theorizing how industrial and postindustrial capitalism’s extreme elasticity, indeed seductiveness, perpetuates and exacerbates its racial regimes.
Most earth scientists have now abandoned Crutzen’s focus on the Industrial Revolution and are leaning towards the mid-20th century as golden spike of the Anthropocene. To many physicists, the epoch-defining feature of modernity is the mobilization of the stupendous energy deriving from the splitting of the atomic nucleus, a scientific as much as geopolitical and theological feat. July 16, 1945, when the first nuclear bomb was detonated with the suitably metaphysical name of the Trinity Test, could be considered the Anthropocene’s symbolic starting date, not a GSSP but a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age, a geological marker out of convenience (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened a few weeks later. (The citation from the Bhagavad Gita at the Trinity Test by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb,” is justifiably famous: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”) This frightful arrival of the possibility of instant annihilation of cities and of human extinction by accident or evil intent has accompanied decades of frantic nuclear development, with no end in sight. For the humanities and social sciences, what makes 1945 compelling as contender for the Anthropocene’s start date is furthermore the monetary and postcolonial liberal-humanitarian order around the United Nations and the so-called Bretton Woods system instituted in the wake of massive casualties and the Holocaust, enabling what environmental historians call the Great Acceleration of baby boom, mass consumption, and mobility, with their attendant environmental impacts (McNeill and Engelke, 2016). Since the Trinity Test, over 2000 nuclear bombs have been exploded, and their fallout is planet-wide and easily measurable. Many earth scientists, including Lewis and Maslin, suggest 1964 is a very good candidate for GSSP because of a clearly legible peak in radioactive carbon-14 in sediments and trees that year. While Lewis and Maslin prefer 1610 because of the conceptual link with the colonization of the Americas, there is no doubt radioactive dust will be a clear-cut marker for thousands of years.
The discussion revolves around the practice of geological periodization itself. Either we choose the geosynchronous signal of radionuclides, or we grant that the multi-factor, uneven, protracted modifications by industrialization have been more consequential, even if no one geological signal can be agreed upon to capture those modifications. If it is not the mid-20th century or 1610 or 1492, we have seen why 1784 makes an inadequate Anthropocenic boundary as proposed by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000). From the Deleuzo-Marxist perspective, steam-power and the use of coal (and gas and oil) are secondary to the more fundamental event of capital encountering displaced peasants looking for work, while for stratigraphers that year is meaningless if there is no strong signal associated with it. If we pick “Lancashire in the late eighteenth century” as spatiotemporal threshold of the Anthropocene, this will not satisfy the requirements of a GSSP, but there seems to be no single geologically significant marker that can point to the beginnings of the capitalist system. It might appear this brings us to an impasse: I would like to identify the geological term “Anthropocene” with the planetary state of racializing industrial capitalism, but I cannot suggest how this epoch be measured as demanded by geological method. Interestingly, when Crutzen suggested 1784 as starting date, he too appears to have overlooked the GSSP requirements. It is conceivable earth science decides the Anthropocene, as “our” present geological epoch, is the only one defined by a more fuzzy symbolic starting date instead of a golden spike, but by now unlikely as some will speak of anthropocentrism and demand technical consistency.
Another option presents itself: simply continue using “Anthropocene” in an informal and capacious manner and accept there are many environmental and sociological markers which together point to North England at the end of the 18th century as its beginning. Between earth science and other practices, we can inhabit the impasse instead of ignoring it. If it turns out the Anthropocene officially starts in 1964, those outside earth science will have to accept that conclusion. But explaining the radioactive stratum will still require explaining Mutually Assured Destruction, industrial technology, and empire, and these have their roots in the racializing capitalisms of early modernity. What after all is the Great Acceleration an acceleration of? The destructive apparatuses of the World Wars and then the Cold War are culminations of geopolitical, technological, and legal processes which first took form much earlier (think of the papally backed Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain of 1498 dividing the world for colonization). But this essay has argued it is the transition to an economy of perpetual speeding-up that is definitive, more than either the beginnings of colonial arrogance or the mad resort to nuclear arsenals. The military–industrial complex has been spectacularly wasteful and dangerous, but it is instigated by the growth imperative, by the “miracle” of the conjoining of primitive accumulation, gendered wage-labor, and commodification in little North English towns (compare Alliez and Lazzarato, 2018; Jones, 1981). The political upshot is that to avoid this system’s catastrophic exponentialities, it will not be possible to simply slow it down.
Concluding thoughts: Life through the Trumpocene
Since their inception in the Enlightenment, both the humanities and left politics have a lot to offer the science of nonhuman processes insofar as all three study the conditions of possibility of human life itself. The anthropos has always been an open question, a site of fundamental antagonism not a monolithic agent, defined by multi-layered and conflicting temporalities. The most promising premise of the Anthropocene concept is that it comes from such unlikely allies of the left, not just ecologists and epidemiologists but geochemists, paleontologists, oceanographers, astrobiologists, and complexity mathematicians. Few scientists, environmentalists, or diplomats follow a simplistic neo-Malthusian line for which it is overpopulation as such that is responsible for ecological devastation (Angus, 2016). Unwittingly, earth scientists in fact provide the Marxian, decolonial, and feminist critiques their most rigorous and affective impetus ever. Critical theorists have an opportunity for pushing scientists and laypeople further to acknowledging racial capitalism as what explains the Anthropocene and its stark inequalities and technologies of mass destruction. That can be done by co-claiming the term while respecting that the scientific rules governing its definitional procedure have their own consistency. It is true that as part of their habitus most physical scientists are unwilling to interrogate their ideological presumptions, but it also behooves the humanities and activists to be alert to the sharp and reasoned disagreements within science. In any case, stratigraphy can no longer proceed without intervention from the humanities, because the strata discussed can only be fully explained and responded to through the concepts the humanities have so long argued over. Just like with previous debates about human destiny, but unlike with most other geological periodizations, the Anthropocene debate has immediate political implications.
Let us recapitulate the argument about race and capital. This essay has argued globalization is based on racial capitalism as brought about by slavery and genocide, but partially overcoming them through the Industrial Revolution. If colonization was essential to the emergence of capitalism, today’s retrospection allows us to identify a “proto-racist” sense of privilege to others’ ecosystems and cultures that inflected the colonial projects (Saldanha, 2013). Liberal and conservative historians argue it was mutual competition, supposedly an inevitable fact amongst all human groups, that drove Western European powers to expand (Crosby, 1986; Jones, 1981). The discords of early modernity are undeniable, of course, but the question is how Europeans could transpose their conflicts anywhere they wanted on the globe, starting with the Crusades and the Treaty of Tordesillas. One can only imagine if competition between China, Japan, and India were to be played out by carving out Europe as Europe did Africa. The aggressive usurpation of land, labor, and resources that colonial capitalism necessarily consists of corresponds with annihilating anthropogenic ecologies that had developed over generations. Following critical race scholars (Wynter, 2013), such annihilation cannot but be termed racist, as it was and is based on the certainty that some people, somehow, have a divine, legal, or rational “right” to appropriate other social formations and landscapes for the enrichment of their fatherland.
Public discourse is changing. Carbon inequality and climate justice are becoming mainstream progressive terms. Even lifestyle magazines like Essence now decry the structural racism inherent in the climate denialism of tycoons like Donald Trump (Sanders, 2017). Indeed, Trump embodies, in however contradictory a fashion, the coming-together of reactionary forces that had been accruing for decades, or rather centuries. As evinced by the spread of the word “Trumpocene,” the president’s cynical selfishness is likely to become more prevalent in the Anthropocene than humanitarian interventionism and the erstwhile calls for universal human rights and cooperation (see Kaplan, 2016; Myer, 2016). When Trump designates countries in the Global South as “shitholes,” attacks brown and black Congresswomen, and refuses to criticize white fascists, he provides a lucid formulation of the logic of racial capitalism: the material positionality of a power elite obsessed with self-enrichment, a denial about the US’s own catastrophic levels of gun violence and plutocracy, and a paranoia about immigration from the areas of poverty this elite causes elsewhere, as a kind of excrement of the capitalist system. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Trumpism has been replicated in Brazil, its president openly imagining exterminating Indigenous Amazonians to make room for export beef. From Europe’s far-right parties to corrupt elites in the Global South, the global growth of Trumpism will no doubt deepen the racialized dimensions of capitalism.
One should not be blinded, however, by the abrasiveness of authoritarians like Trump and Bolsonaro: they are the condensation of a liberal-democratic order in crisis. An irony of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is that just when the most openly racist and sexist US president ever comes to lead the last white-supremacist empire—which, though crumbling, or perhaps because of that, has been most responsible for the world’s catastrophic state—he accelerates that empire’s decline and nefarious effects with as much bravado as ineptitude. The desperate anti-environmentalism and heteronormativity of the US Republicans and Bolsonaro must be seen as part and parcel of a fascist turn which, as history show, accompanies states of profound collective malaise. With the Industrial Revolution, the formal abolition of slavery, the welfare state, mass consumption, neoliberalism, and now a crypto-fascist turn, capital requires drastic axiomatic transformations for its own survival. Trump and Bolsonaro show that Nick Mirzoeff (2016) has a point in calling the Anthropocene “the White-Supremacy-Scene,” but racial capitalism operates through more than violence, and its start date is the late 18th century not the 16th.
The global system of race constantly has to restabilize itself across the centuries and across locations and scales. This article revisited processes whereby capital aggressively remade the earth in its own image and hence posited the white bourgeoisie as explicit standard for the entire species. But capital is a force uncontainable by any one racial or ruling class. If by the year 2120 on a viciously hot planet China turns out to be the dominant superpower, Arab city-states have successfully navigated peak oil, Europe is riven with separatist warfare, and US cities are burnt-out and flooded wastelands, inequalities in life expectancy will most probably still be indexed on phenotypical differences. Sinocentric or Arab-centric versions of structural racism and ecological destruction might be less genocidal than the white-supremacist ones—indeed, the truculent policies of the “emerging economies” often justify themselves as different from Europe’s arrogance even while they import the same methods—but that could render them more effective. Even if in this scenario white supremacy is superseded, it is certain the inhuman vortex of capital would continue to wreak havoc on racialized others, animals, and ecosystems. As a broadening coalition of activists, theorists, and scientists is showing, the time is now for conceiving and struggling for an Anthropocene freed from capital’s axiomatic of growth. Whenever the Anthropocene started, whether it engenders collapse, slow degradation, or a different system altogether is a political question of unprecedented magnitude.
Thanks to the perceptive criticisms of the three anonymous reviewers, special issue editors Bruce Erickson and Andrew Baldwin, and the journal editors, this essay has gone through an extraordinary amount of rewriting. Even while I am sure there remains plenty to argue about, I am immensely grateful for their engagements.
I revised this paper while I was Visiting Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Globalisation and Citizenship, Deakin University, Melbourne, Visiting Professor at the School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London, and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Utrecht University. Many thanks to Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff for ongoing conversations about all this.
Declaration of conflicting interests
1“It is not my intention to argue that the differences between slavery and freedom were negligible; certainly such an assertion would be ridiculous. Rather, it is to examine the shifting and transformed relations of power that brought about the resubordination of the emancipated, the control and domination of the free black population, and the persistent production of blackness as abject, threatening, servile, dangerous, dependent, irrational, and infectious” (Hartman, 1997: 116).
This essay argues the differences between slavery and “freedom” must be theorized. With the emergence of black working and middle-classes and the struggle for civil rights, there were profound shifts in racial capitalism. Recent protest movements have correctly flagged the continuity in the racist tropes Hartman identifies here, but this very gesture sustains the possibility of politics and disproves the identification of blackness with abjection.
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Arun Saldanha is Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA. Saldanha is the author of Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and Space After Deleuze (Bloomsbury, 2017), and coeditor with Hoon Song of Sexual Difference Between Psychoanalysis and Vitalism (Routledge, 2013), with Rachel Slocum of Geographies of Race and Food: Fields Bodies Markets (Ashgate, 2013), and with Jason Michael Adams of Deleuze and Race (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).