back to

The Illusion of Non-Capitalist Spaces


At Public Seminar, sociologist Victor Lund Shammas reflects on the spaces and moments in our lives that seem relatively removed from immediate economic concerns like working and spending money. He speaks of the quiet time spent reading a book, or going on a hike, and socializing with friends. Shammas argues that the apparent remoteness of these activities from capitalist valorization is only an illusion. He suggests that in recent decades, capitalism has discovered that these experiences too are opportunities to turn a profit, either directly—by selling us the latest and hippest hiking gear—or indirectly—by enjoining us to stay healthy so we can maximize our productivity at the office. Here’s an excerpt from his provocative piece:

The answer, in part, is of course that the conservation of such micro-scale difference is itself one of the major reproductive cultural logics in late capitalism. This economic system preserves itself, which means maintaining a tenuous popular legitimacy, through the cultivation of difference, broadly understood. In geology, one speaks of a “suspended load,” which is a mass of “fine particles (especially clay) carried along by flowing water or wind; they eventually settle out in calmer conditions.” This poetic description of a brute physical process that is constantly ongoing in nature also captures the essence of certain behaviors in the social world, homing in on the subjective motivations of those constant efforts to construct inter-capitalist pockets: inter-, not in the usual sense, i.e. relationships between capitalists, but rather in-between capitalism, or in the cracks and fissures of capital, spaces within the terrain of capital that are left apparently untouched, or for all practical purposes seem to have been left untouched by capital.

Of course, these places are not really located outside of capital’s circuitry — hardly any place is left truly untouched by the machinations of capital, if only through the chemical infiltration of microplastics into the pores of the skin, glacial crevices, or maritime world, as with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — but they are “as good as” removed from capital’s grip. Life away from the capitalist urban sphere really does move at a slower pace. The cabin I spend time in up in the mountains is full of slow-moving provincials who stand and stare out at the lake for hours at a time. The books I buy from the independent bookstore around the corner from where I work are almost twice as expensive as they are on Amazon, and yet the place is packed on weekends — because of its leftist cachet and vaguely progressive atmosphere. Given the fact of capital’s expansive and effusive nature, how are such things even possible?

McKenzie Wark has hit upon a good answer in his reading of Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse. In General Intellects, Wark points out that for Marx, one of the signal achievements of machinic civilization is to reduce the labor-time required in the production process. But as less time is needed to make the same amount of stuff, and as workers (ideally) are allowed more free time — at least in those societies that still have reasonably effective labor unions and welfare states in place — free time becomes a time for recuperation and self-cultivation (p. 12). This turning back onto the self — the individuation of the individual worker in their spare time — becomes a crucial component in the friction-less functioning of cognitive capitalism. More than ever, cognitive capitalism requires that workers pull back from the grind and cultivate their own bodies and minds, with hobbies (painting, drawing, yoga, running, cooking), with curated crafted reading lists, with motivational speakers, from Tim Ferriss’ wildly popular The 4-Hour Workweek to Tony Robbins’s Netflix hit, I Am Not Your Guru.

Image via