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“A live monster that is fruitful and multiplies”: Capitalism as Poisoned Rat?


One must wonder now whether it is useful to keep to the animist strands and currents in popular beliefs about (as well as venerable theories of) political economy, capitalism, and the commodity—or is it actually quite futile? The question seems rather pertinent when it comes to posing Anselm Franke’s Animism project clearly and polemically within contemporary anticapitalist, anti-neoliberal, and decolonizing struggles. I see it as a potential contribution to the productive confusion generated by haggling over certainties and consensus within these struggles, and I am particularly interested in those instances where capital, capitalism, and/or “the markets” are figured as living, acting entities endowed with agency. Moreover, I would like to ask how this assumed agency is imagined to be linked to animism as a discursive practice, as well as whether—at the very moment the concept, or indeed the word “animism,” is introduced into discourses of politics, economy, and culture—a specific and efficient metaphor becomes activated, transforming and virtualizing our relation to capital.

We all know how metaphors of agency are used to describe, for instance, price movements “as action, as […] internally driven behavior of an animate entity;” markets are regularly portrayed as agents that, although impersonal and nonhuman, nevertheless expect and react, appreciate and punish, sulk and rejoice depending on the behavior of economic actors both great and small. In trade papers and stock market commentary, financial markets are often served up to us in anthropomorphic or animalistic metaphors: “The Nasdaq climbed higher,” “the Dow fought its way upward,” or “the S&P dove like a hawk.” Markets are “sensitive to social media moods,” they have “mood swings too,” they “rise on optimism,” and have all kinds of “feelings.” At the same time, markets are perceived as threatening, capricious, vengeful, and so forth; they are envisaged as being capable of arousing emotions in us, of acting on the affects of those whose fortunes depend on their alleged volatile moods.

Particularly in the current phase of capitalism, the one in which abstraction and destruction have converged to an extent that has no historical precedent, metaphors of body and soul are proffered to help comprehend the incomprehensible, intangible operations of contemporary networked financial markets. They also function as reasons for the most tangible and comprehensible structural inequalities, social catastrophes, and natural disasters that issue from them.

It may be a critical (de)constructivist commonplace to emphasize the discursive processes that lead to the “naturalization” of capital. However, it is worth mentioning that even if one critiques capitalism as a “‘system’ that profits by its reproduction” (Judith Butler), this way of speaking still tends to naturalize, even anthropomorphize, capitalism—of which one could say, it is precisely a “humanism” that uses humanity as an abstraction to propagate “the sphere of commodity exchange [as] a true Eden of innate human rights,” as Karl Marx put it. In other words: a world where freedom and equality rule because everybody relates to everybody else as a commodity-owner. No wonder Louis Althusser pushed for Marxism as an anti-humanism. But would he have also accepted the idea of an anticapitalist, or “post-capitalist,” animism?

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