Capitalism has learned to create host organisms, article by Zygmunt Bauman, The Guardian


In the face of financial crisis, any hope that the parasite will die when it runs out of food is in vain – capitalism is far too inventive.

The news of capitalism’s demise is (to borrow from Mark Twain) somewhat exaggerated. Capitalism has an inbuilt wondrous capacity of resurrection and regeneration; though this is capacity of a kind shared with parasites – organisms that feed on other organisms, belonging to other species. After a complete or near-complete exhaustion of one host organism, a parasite tends and manages to find another, that would supply it with life juices for a successive, albeit also limited, stretch of time.

A hundred years ago Rosa Luxemburg grasped that secret of the eerie, phoenix-like ability of capitalism to rise, repeatedly, from the ashes; an ability that leaves behind a track of devastation – the history of capitalism is marked by the graves of living organisms sucked of their life juices to exhaustion. Luxemburg, however, confined the set of organisms, lined up for the outstanding visits of the parasite, to “pre-capitalist economies” – whose number was limited and steadily shrinking under the impact of the ongoing imperialist expansion.

With each successive visit, another one of those remaining “virgin lands” was converted into a grazing field for capitalist exploitation, and therefore sooner rather than later made unfit for the needs of capitalist “extended reproduction” since no longer promising profits such an expansion required. Thinking along these lines (a fully understandable inclination, given the mostly territorial, extensive rather than intensive, lateral rather than vertical, nature of that expansion 100 years ago), Luxemburg could not but anticipate the natural limits to the conceivable duration of the capitalist system: once all “virgin lands” of the globe are conquered and drawn into the treadmill of capitalist recycling, the absence of new lands for exploitation will portend and eventually enforce the collapse of the system. The parasite will die because of the absence of not-yet-exhausted organisms to feed on.

Today capitalism has already reached the global dimension, or at any rate has come very close to reaching it – a feat that for Luxemburg was still a somewhat distant prospect. Is therefore Luxemburg’s prediction close to fulfilment? I do not think it is. What has happened in the last half a century or so is capitalism learning the previously unknown and unimagined art of producing ever new “virgin lands”, instead of limiting its rapacity to the set of the already existing ones. That new art – made possible by the shift from the “society of producers” to the “society of consumers”, and from the meeting of capital and labour to the meeting of commodity and client as the principal source of “added value” – profit and accumulation consists mostly of the progressive commodification of life functions, market mediation in successive needs’ satisfaction and substituting desire for need in the role of the fly-wheel of the profit-aimed economy.

The current crisis derives from the exhaustion of an artificially created “virgin land”; one built out of the millions stuck in the “culture of saving books” instead of “culture of credit cards”; in other words, out of the millions of people too shy to spend the yet-unearned money, living on credit, taking loans and paying interest. Exploitation of that particular “virgin land” is now by and large over and it has been left now to the politicians to clean up the debris left by the bankers’ feast; that task has been removed from the realm of bankers’ responsibility into the dustbin of “political problems” and recast belatedly from an economic issue into the question of (to quote the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) “political will”. But one is entitled to surmise that in the offices of capitalism hard labour is focused on constructing new “virgin lands” – though also burdened with the curse of fairly limited life expectancy, given the parasitic nature of capitalism.

Capitalism proceeds through creative destruction. What is created is capitalism in a “new and improved” form – and what is destroyed is self-sustaining capacity, livelihood and dignity of its innumerable and multiplied “host organisms” into which all of us are drawn/seduced one way or another. I suspect that one of capitalism’s crucial assets derives from the fact that the imagination of economists, including its critics, lags well behind its own inventiveness, the arbitrariness of its undertaking and the ruthlessness of the way in which it proceeds.