Marx and Engels long ago noted that capitalist productivity entails unceasing destruction and destitution. As they put it in the Communist Manifesto: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (38). Destruction is not a mere by-product of capitalist development; it is its fundamental pre-requisite as the formal subsumption of labor, whereby older technologies are maintained even as they are assimilated into capitalist relations, is replaced by real subsumption, which demands the fundamental transformation of all aspects of the productive process. But as a result, capitalism is also truly revolutionary: it abruptly does away with the hierarchies and injustices of earlier social formations, if only to replace them with a regime that is even more insidiously unequal and unjust. Ruins of the past may persist: more or less mute reminders of what has gone before, but these too are often enough caught up in the revolutionary whirlwind. If capital can profit from the ruins it creates, it does so, turning them for instance into historical theme-parks, sites for leisure or aesthetic contemplation. Ruined places and peoples can be treated with a certain exoticizing sympathy, at the same time as they are held up as object (and objectified) lesson in what happens to those who do not adapt fast enough to changing times. In short, they can be resignified as part of a master narrative of progress. More often, however, capital moves swiftly on, brutally unsentimental about the devastation it leaves in its wake. Still, there is something strangely creative about the destruction wrought by capitalist modernity, a fact analyzed by theorists from Werner Sombart to Joseph Schumpeter.
Some have celebrated capital’s tendency to build on ruins, seeing it in Darwinian terms as an instance of the survival of the fittest. As Schumpeter argues, “the essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process” (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy 82). Others have been more ambivalent or even downright critical. Recently, Naomi Klein has revived the notion of creative destruction with her observations in The Shock Doctrine, but with a twist. For Klein, catastrophe is not so much endemic to capitalism as a necessary supplement for the particular hyper-capitalist ethos that goes by the name of neoliberalism. What she terms “disaster capitalism” arises in the twentieth century with the Pinochet dictatorship, only then to spread around the world. Klein argues that the successful implementation of neoliberal “reforms” depends upon a catastrophic “shock,” whether that be imposed from above (as in Chile) or whether it be an apparent “Act of God” (such as Hurricane Katrina) from which capital can opportunistically profit. In this version, it is not capitalism on its own that engineers the destruction upon which its creativity depends: some external force or sovereign violence intervenes to pave the way for economic restructuring, which is in turn devastating in its own way. But the shock comes first: the political has priority, and contemporary capitalism is rather more Leninist that its proponents would like to believe.
For Marx and Engels, the effects of capitalism’s creative destruction are epistemological as much as they are social, political, or economic. “All that is solid melts into air,” as they famously observe, “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind” (38-39). Intrinsic or extrinsic to capitalist production, it is crisis that allows us to see the truth of bourgeois society--and perhaps the preconditions of any society--clearly for the first time. The continual catastrophes that mark modernity allow an opening to capital’s posthegemonic kernel: every trace of ideology is swept away. Indeed, all narratives are briefly disrupted and we are left with a glimpse of what Giorgio Agamben would call bare life. Not only therefore does creative destruction do away with the oppressive social structures of the past: for all the neoliberal dictum that in the face of disaster “there is no alternative” to free-market deregulation, it also suggests that capitalism may not be the only beneficiary of the very crises that it lives and breathes. Catastrophe offers a turning point. It provides space for the rearticulation of well-worn mantras, which may gain renewed purchase when our defenses have been downed. It may also subsequently provide a mythic origin for new narratives and new articulations, perhaps more sinister than hitherto. But further, crisis has the potential to allow something genuinely unheralded (if perhaps long felt) to emerge: in laying bare what Marx and Engels term man’s “relations with his kind,” it reveals what we have in common. However much it hits some more than others, the propensity to be touched by calamity is ultimately a condition that we have in common with others. Moreover, disaster tends to exert a brute levelling, to provoke shared affects and induce fellowship. So as Rebecca Solnit argues, “extraordinary communities” are built on the very ordinary experience of common practices and habits that emerge out of destruction.
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