‘Capitalism, The Sole Culprit of the Destructive Exploitation of Nature’ by Alain Badiou

It has become common today to announce, for various reasons, the end of the human species as we know it. In the typically messianic direction that a certain ecology proceeds, the predatory excesses of this bad animal that is the human will soon lead to the end of the living world. In the direction of the technological surge, we are promised, pell-mell, the robotization of all work, sumptuous digitization, automatic art, the plasticized killer, and the perils of superhuman intelligence.

As a result, threatening categories, such as transhumanism and the posthuman, rise to the surface; or, symmetrically, a return to animalism – depending on whether one prophesies on the basis of technical creation or laments on the basis of the attacks on Mother Nature. I hold all these prophecies as so many ideological rattles intended to obscure the real danger to which humanity is exposed today, namely the impasse into which globalized capitalism is leading us. It is in reality this social form, and it alone, which authorizes the destructive exploitation of natural resources, linking it to the pure notion of private profit.

That so many species are threatened, that the climate is out of control, that water is becoming a rare treasure – all of this is a byproduct of ruthless competition between billionaire predators. And that scientific progress is anarchically subservient to marketable technologies also has no other origin. Ecological sermons, although they often fuel (in spite of their prophetic exaggerations) convincing descriptions, most of the time become pure propaganda, useful to states which want to appear nice and transnational companies which want to make believe, for the greater benefit of their turnover, about the noble and fraternal natural purity of their traded goods.

Moreover, the fetishism of technology, the uninterrupted succession of “revolutions” in this field – the “digital revolution” being the most fashionable – has constantly tried to make us believe, simultaneously, that we are heading on the one hand towards the paradise of non-work, helpful robots and a universal idyllic idleness, and, on the other, towards the crushing of the human intellect by electronic “thought”. There is not a magazine today which does not present to its stupefied readers the imminence of the “victory” of artificial intelligence over the natural intelligence. But in most cases neither “nature” nor “artifice” is properly and clearly defined.

Since the origins of philosophy, we have wondered what the word “nature” denotes. It could mean the romantic reverie of sunsets; the atomic materialism of Lucretius (“De natura rerum”); the intimate being of things; the Totality of Spinoza (“Deus sive Natura”); the objective reverse of any culture; the rural, peasant site as opposed to the suspicious artifices of the city (“the earth, it does not lie”, said Pétain); biology in its difference from physics; cosmology with regard to the tiny site that is our planet; secular invariance as opposed to inventive frenzy; natural sexuality as opposed to perversion… I fear that today “nature” designates above all the peace of gardens and villas, the tourist charm of wild animals, the beach and the mountain for spending a pleasant summer. And who can imagine that man is accountable with regard to Nature – man who is today no more than a thinking chip on a secondary planet in an average solar system on the edges of a banal galaxy?

Philosophy, since its origins, has also thought Technics [la Technique], or the Arts. The Greeks meditated on the dialectic of Techne and Phusis; they situated the human animal, and laid the groundwork for it to be seen as “a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” which means, Pascal thinks: stronger than Nature, and closer to God. For a very long time, the Greeks saw that the animal capable of mathematics would do great things within the material order. These “robots” they harp on about, what are they other than calculation arranged in machines? Number crystallised in movements? We know that they count faster than us, but it is us who designed them precisely for this task. It would be stupid to argue that, because a crane raises a huge concrete post to prodigious heights, man is unable to prevent the birth of a giant muscular Transhuman… counting at lightning speed is no more the sign of an insurmountable “intelligence”. Technological transhumanism remakes us as that hackneyed, inexhaustible theme of horror and science fiction movies: the creator overwhelmed by his creation, either enchanted by the coming (which has been awaited since Nietzsche) of the Ubermensch, or fearful of it, taking refuge in the skirt of Gaia, Mother Nature.

Let’s take things a step further. Humanity, for four or five millennia, has been organized by the triad of: private property, which concentrates enormous wealth in the hands of very slender oligarchies; the family, through which fortunes pass through inheritance; the state, which protects both property and family through armed force. It is this triad that defines the Neolithic age of our species, and we are still there – indeed now more than ever. Capitalism is the contemporary form of the Neolithic, and its enslavement of technologies by competition, profit, and the concentration of Capital only brings to their apex the monstrous inequalities, social absurdities, warlike massacres and deleterious ideologies which have always accompanied the deployment of new technologies under the historical reign of class hierarchy.

It must be understood that technological innovations were the initial conditions, and not at all the final result, of the establishment of the Neolithic age. If we consider the destiny of our animal species, settled agriculture, the domestication of cattle and horses, pottery, bronze, metal weapons, writing, nationalities, monumental architecture, monotheistic religions, are inventions at least as important as the smartphone or the plane. What is human in history has always been artificial by definition, otherwise we would not be dealing with Neolithic humanity – the one we know – but the permanence of a strong proximity with animality, which lasted for a long time – probably 200,000 years – in the form of small nomadic groups.

A fearful and obscurantist primitivism has existed as long as the fallacious concept of “primitive communism”. We know today the cult of friendly archaic societies where babies, women, men and old people lived fraternally, without anything artificial, including with mice, frogs and bears. All this is after all ridiculous, reactionary propaganda, when everything indicates that the societies in question were full of violence, because they were constantly under the yoke, for the sole purpose of survival, of debilitating necessities.

To evoke today, trembling, the victory of the artificial over the natural, robot over man, is equally an untenable regression, a genuine absurdity. Let us oppose to these terrors and these prophecies the following: A simple axe, or a trained horse, to say nothing of a papyrus filled with signs, are already in this account exemplarily trans- or post-human, and even an abacus allowed one to calculate much faster than the fingers of the hand.

The question of our time is certainly not one of a return to primitivism, of a messianic terror at the “ravages” of technology, nor of a morbid fascination with the science-fiction of triumphant robots. The real question is the possibility of a methodical and urgent exit from the Neolithic. In fact, this thousand-year-old order, only valorising competition and hierarchies, and tolerating the misery of billions of human beings, must be overcome at all costs, lest those wars are unleashed, of which the Neolithic has since its appearance held the secret, in the technologized lineage of those of 1914-18 or 1939-45, with their tens of millions of victims, only this time with many more.

For me, it is not about technologies or nature. It is about the organization of societies on the scale of the whole world. It is a question of proposing that a non-Neolithic social organization is possible, which is to say: no privatisation of property which must be common, namely the production of all that is necessary for human life. No family of heirs, no concentrated inheritances. No separate state protecting the oligarchies. No hierarchy of work. No nations, no closed and hostile identities. Collective organization of everything that has a collective destiny.

It has a name, a beautiful name: communism. Capitalism is only the last phase of the restrictions that the neolithic form of societies imposes on human life. It is the last stage of the Neolithic. Another effort, beautiful human animal, to step out of your 5000 years of invention in the service of a handful of people. For nearly two centuries, since Marx in any case, we have known that we must begin the new age, one of incredible technologies for all, tasks distributed equally to all, the sharing of everything, and the educational affirmation of the genius of everyone. That the new communism is opposed, everywhere, on all questions, to the morbid survival of capitalism, this apparent “modernity” of a world actually five millennia old, which is to say: old, far too old.


As published in Le Monde, 26. July 2018

Translated by Sam Warren Mie