Friday, March 30, 2018

2864. How Not To Talk About Race and Genetics: A Response to David Reich's "Who We Are, and How We Got Here"

Buzzfeed, March 30, 2018

Editor's note:  David Reich's essay in The New York Times was republished here as "How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of 'Race'." Below is an open letter signed by 68 scientists and researchers who take issue with Reich's view more fully explained in his book "Who We Are and How We Got Here."  The full list of signers appear below.  March 30, 2018. KN. 

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In his newly published book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich engages with the complex and often fraught intersections of genetics with our understandings of human differences — most prominently, race.
He admirably challenges misrepresentations about race and genetics made by the likes of former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade and Nobel Laureate James Watson. As an eminent scientist, Reich clearly has experience with the genetics side of this relationship. But his skillfulness with ancient and contemporary DNA should not be confused with a mastery of the cultural, political, and biological meanings of human groups.
As a group of 68 scholars from disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, medical and population health sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities, we would like to make it clear that Reich’s understanding of "race" — most recently in a Times column warning that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’” — is seriously flawed.
For centuries, race has been used as potent category to determine how differences between human beings should and should not matter. But science and the categories it constructs do not operate in a political vacuum. Population groupings become meaningful to scientists in large part because of their social and political salience — including, importantly, their power to produce and enforce hierarchies of race, sex, and class.
Reich frames his argument by positing a straw man in the form of a purported orthodoxy that claims that “the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today's racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.” That orthodoxy, he says, “denies the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations” and is “anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations.”
This misrepresents the many scientists and scholars who have demonstrated the scientific flaws of considering “race” a biological category. Their robust body of scholarship recognizes the existence of geographically based genetic variation in our species, but shows that such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race. Nor does that variation map precisely onto ever changing socially defined racial groups.
Reich critically misunderstands and misrepresents concerns that are central to recent critiques of how biomedical researchers — including Reich — use categories of “race” and “population.”
For example, sickle cell anemia is a meaningful biological trait. In the US it is commonly (and mistakenly) identified as a “black” disease. In fact, while it does have a high prevalence in populations of people with West and Central African ancestry, it also has a high prevalence in populations from much of the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of the Mediterranean and India. This is because the genetic variant that causes sickle cell is more prevalent in people descended from parts of the world with a high incidence of malaria. “Race” has nothing to do with it. Thus, it is simply wrong to say that the higher prevalence of sickle cell trait in West African populations means that the racial category “black” is somehow genetic.
The same thing goes for the people descended from West African populations whom Reich examined in his work on prostate cancer. These people may have a higher frequency of a version of a particular gene that is linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer. But lots of people not from West Africa also have this same gene. We don’t call these other people a “race” or say their “race” is relevant to their condition. Finding a high prevalence of a particular genetic variant in a group does not make that group a “race.”
Human beings are 99.5% genetically identical. Of course, because the human genome has 3 billion base pairs, that means any given individual may differ from another at 15 million loci (.5% of 3 billion). Given random variation, you could genotype all Red Sox fans and all Yankees fans and find that one group has a statistically significant higher frequency of a number of particular genetic variants than the other group — perhaps even the same sort of variation that Reich found for the prostate cancer–related genes he studied. This does not mean that Red Sox fans and Yankees fans are genetically distinct races (though many might try to tell you they are).
In short, there is a difference between finding genetic differences between individuals and constructing genetic differences across groups by making conscious choices about which types of group matter for your purposes. These sorts of groups do not exist “in nature.” They are made by human choice. This is not to say that such groups have no biological attributes in common. Rather, it is to say that the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.
In support of his argument for the biological relevance of race, Reich also writes about genetic differences between Northern and Southern Europeans. Again, this should not be an argument for the biological reality of race. Of course, we could go back to the early 20th century when many believed that the “industrious” Northern Teutons were a race distinct from the “slothful” Southern Europeans. Such thinking informed the creation of racially restrictive immigration laws in 1924, but we think even Reich would not consider this sort of thinking useful today.
Instead, we need to recognize that meaningful patterns of genetic and biological variation exist in our species that are not racial.
Reich’s claim that we need to prepare for genetic evidence of racial differences in behavior or health ignores the trajectory of modern genetics. For several decades billions of dollars have been spent trying to find such differences. The result has been a preponderance of negative findings despite intrepid efforts to collect DNA data on millions of individuals in the hope of finding even the tiniest signals of difference.
To challenge Reich’s claims is not, as he would have it, to stick our heads in the sand. It is to develop a more sophisticated approach to the problem of human group categorization in the biomedical sciences.
Precisely because the problems of race are complex, scientists need to engage these issues with greater care and sophistication. Geneticists should work in collaboration with their social science and humanities colleagues to make certain that their biomedical discoveries make a positive difference in health care, including the care of those studied.
This is not to say that geneticists such as Reich should never use categories in their research; indeed, their work would be largely impossible without them. However, they must be careful to understand the social and historical legacies that shape the formation of these categories, and constrain their utility.
Even "male" and "female," which Reich invokes as obviously biologically meaningful, has important limitations. While these categories help us to know and care for many human beings, they hinder our capacity to know and care for the millions of human beings born into this world not clearly "sexed.’ Further, overemphasizing the importance of the X and Y chromosomes in determining sex prevent us from seeing the other parts of the genome involved in sex.
While focusing on groups with a high incidence of a particular condition may help researchers identify genetic variants that might correlate to the condition, it must also be understood that all genetic contributions to physical traits, including disease, are always influenced by environmental factors.
For example, an ancestral gene may not have ever contributed to disease risk in its former environment, but now does when individuals carrying it are differentially exposed to harmful environments. This raises the question of whether it is more efficacious to remove the environmental insult or alter the individual’s physiology by medical intervention (or both).
Making claims about the existence of biological races won’t help answer questions about health, like how the health of racialized groups is harmed by racial discrimination — how it increases the risk of disease, the risk of exposure to environmental toxins, or the risk of inadequate and inappropriate health care.
This doesn’t mean that genetic variation is unimportant; it is, but it does not follow racial lines. History has taught us the many ways that studies of human genetic variation can be misunderstood and misinterpreted: if sampling practices and historical contexts are not considered; if little attention is given to how genes, environments, and social conditions interact; and if we ignore the ways that sociocultural categories and practices shape the genetic patterns themselves.
As scholars who engage with social and scientific research, we urge scientists to speak out when science is used inappropriately to make claims about human differences. The public should not cede the power to define race to scientists who themselves are not trained to understand the social contexts that shape the formation of this fraught category. Instead, we encourage geneticists to collaborate with their colleagues in the social sciences, humanities, and public health to consider more carefully how best to use racial categories in scientific research. Together, we can conduct research that will influence human lives positively.

Jonathan Kahn, James E. Kelley Professor of Law, Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Alondra Nelson, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, Columbia University; President, Social Science Research Council
Joseph L. Graves Jr., Associate Dean for Research & Professor of Biological Sciences, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Section G: Biological Sciences, Joint School of Nanoscience & Nanoengineering, North Carolina A&T State University, UNC Greensboro
Sarah Abel, Postdoc, Department of Anthropology, University of Iceland
Ruha Benjamin, Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies, Princeton University
Sarah Blacker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
Catherine Bliss, Associate Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, UC San Francisco
Lundy Braun, Professor of Medical Science and Africana Studies, Brown University
Khiara M. Bridges, Professor of Law, Professor of Anthropology, Boston University
Craig Calhoun, President of Berggruen Institute Centennial Professor, London School of Economics.
Claudia Chaufan, Associate Professor, York University Toronto
Nathaniel Comfort, Professor, Institute of the History of Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University
Richard Cone, Professor of Biophysics, Johns Hopkins University
Richard Cooper, Department of Public Health Sciences, Loyola University Medical School
Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society
Robert Desalle, Curator, Institute for Genomics, American Museum of Natural History
Troy Duster, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology Emerita, Brown University, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Agustin Fuentes, The Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Professor of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame
Joan H. Fujimura, Professor, Department of Sociology and Holtz Center for Research on Science, Technology, Medicine, and the Environment, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Stephanie Malia Fullerton, Associate Professor, Department of Bioethics & Humanities, University of Washington
Duana Fullwiley, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology, Stanford University.
Omer Gokcumen, Assistant Professor, University at Buffalo
Alan Goodman, Professor of Biological Anthropology. Hampshire College
Monica H. Green, Professor of History, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University
Erika Hagelberg, Professor, Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo
Evelynn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University
Helena Hansen, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry, New York University
John Hartigan Jr., Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin.
Anthony Hatch, Associate Professor, Science in Society Program, Sociology, and African American Studies, Wesleyan University
Torsten Heinemann, Professor of Sociology and Chair of Technology and Diversity, RWTH Aachen University, Germany
Jay Kaufman, Canada Research Chair in Health Disparities and Professor of Epidemiology, McGill University.
Trica Keaton, Associate Professor, African and African American Studies, Dartmouth College
Terence Keel, Associate Professor, Department of Black Studies and Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
Nancy Krieger, Professor of Social Epidemiology, American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Sheldon Krimsky, Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tufts University
Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, Associate Professor of History, University of Oslo
Catherine Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University
Ageliki Lefkaditou, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute of Health and Society, University of Oslo
Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University
Jonathan Marks, Professor of Anthropology, UNC-Charlotte
Amade M’charek, Professor of the Anthropology of Science, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Michael Montoya, Associate Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, University of California, Irvine
Ann Morning, Associate Professor of Sociology, New York University
Osagie K. Obasogie, Haas Distinguished Chair and Professor of Bioethics, Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley
Pilar N. Ossorio, Ph.D., JD, Professor of Law and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Tony Platt, Distinguished Affiliated Scholar, Center for the Study of Law & Society, UC Berkeley;
Robert Pollack, professor of Biological Sciences, Columbia University
Aaron Panofsky, Associate Professor, Institute for Society and Genetics, Public Policy, and Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles
Kimani Paul-Emile, Associate Professor, Fordham University School of Law
Ramya M. Rajagopalan, Research Scientist, Institute for Practical Ethics, University of California, San Diego
Rayna Rapp, Professor of Anthropology, New York University
Jenny Reardon, Department of Sociology and Director, Science and Justice Research Center, University of California, Santa Cruz
Amos Morris-Reich, Professor of History, University of Haifa
Susan M. Reverby, McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies, Wellesley College
Sarah Richardson, Professor of the History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, Harvard University
Jennifer A. Richeson, Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology, Yale University
Sarah S. Richardson, Professor of the History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Director of Graduate Studies, WGS, Harvard University
Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law, Sociology, and Africana Studies and Director, Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society, University of Pennsylvania
Wendy D. Roth, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia
Charmaine DM Royal, Associate Professor, African & African American Studies, Biology, and Community & Family Medicine, Duke University
Danilyn Rutherford, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Janet K. Shim, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Francisco
Karen-Sue Taussig, Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota
Charis Thompson, Chancellor’s Professor, UC Berkeley, and RQIF Professor, London School of Economics
France Winddance Twine, Professor of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara
Keith Wailoo, Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University
Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law, Columbia University
Michael Yudell, Chair & Associate Professor, Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University

2863. Invisible Exploitation: How Capital Extracts Value Beyond Wage Labor

By Eva Swidler, Monthly Review, March 1, 2018
The Marxist analysis of work under capitalism has long been associated with a preoccupation with wage labor: waged workers as wage-slaves, industrial workers as the revolutionary proletariat, and factory workers as the vanguard. The labor theory of value has been widely seen as applying to the wage form of work and no other. But Marx’s own writings describe other forms of labor under capitalism, and Marxist theorists have long pushed to expand our understanding of exploitation beyond the classic waged relations of production.
Capitalists have always used more than the wage form alone to extract surplus product from workers. However, this century is particularly distinguished by its growing reliance on alternate methods of extracting surplus. It’s time for Marxists to rethink our preoccupation with the wage and develop a theory encompassing a common ground of exploitation across a wide variety of extractive relations under capitalism. A recognition of that shared exploitation may prove key if the exploited “class-in-itself” is to become a “class-for-itself,” able to unite and act in solidarity.
Marx himself analyzed two major modes of capitalist exploitation of workers outside the wage form: “so-called primitive accumulation” and reproductive labor. Already in 1913, Rosa Luxemburg proposed in The Accumulation of Capital that primitive accumulation (better translated as “original” accumulation) was not a one-time event somewhere in the past, but instead an ongoing process under capitalism. Capitalist growth, she argued, required continual expansion into “non-capitalist” spheres: “accumulation is more than an internal relationship between the branches of the capitalist economy; it is primarily a relationship between capital and a non-capitalist environment.”1 It is worth noting here that discussions of original accumulation tend to focus on the material objects of appropriation, such as seized oil fields or privatized water, minerals, or land. But much or even most original accumulation—sometimes also called, accumulation by dispossession or accumulation by theft—appropriates both raw materials and labor simultaneously. When infrastructure such as railroads, produced goods such as ships, tools, buildings, cleared and improved fields and lands, crops, mined metals, and so on are plundered, the labor used to modify and maintain those resources is also seized.
Another form of capitalist labor expropriation, slavery, can likewise be understood as a form of original accumulation, a direct theft of human labor power. The case for capitalism’s foundational need for slavery was made at least as early as 1944 by Eric Williams, although at the time he assumed that slavery was a labor form of the past.2 However, from reports of workers padlocked into factories, a global traffic in women for coerced sex work, confiscated passports of domestic servants, and children held to work on cacao plantations, it is clear that unfree labor is not a pre-capitalist relic, but continues to thrive.
In addition to original accumulation, Marx studied the role of reproductive labor in capitalism: the unpaid work needed to reproduce labor power by creating and raising children, and by feeding, clothing, sheltering, and caring for adult workers. However, orthodox Marxism has tended to draw a sharp line between productive and reproductive labor, suggesting that the latter is necessary to capitalism’s function and expansion, but it does not in economic terms generate surplus value for capital. Beginning in the 1970s, Marxist feminists and movements like the Wages for Housework campaign countered this consensus by arguing that women’s domestic work was unpaid but nevertheless commodity-producing work; indeed, it created and sustained the most important commodity of all—labor-power. Women’s “reproductive” work was actually foundational to capitalist exploitation, and very much a productive activity. Yet “women’s work” was and remains largely invisible as labor, instead defined as a naturally occurring “labor of love,” allocated to the private rather than economic sphere. As Maria Mies famously pointed out in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, under capitalism, with the creation of the category of “housewife,” “women’s labor is considered a natural resource, freely available like air and water.”3
In her influential 1988 book If Women Counted, Marilyn Waring brought a feminist critique of conventional economic measurements to a broader audience, arguing that from carrying water to caring for the elderly, the worth of women’s work was unaccounted for in money-based metrics of wages, profits, and productivity. Waring’s work inspired the introduction of new statistical methods, on a national and international scale, that sought to assess the hours and imputed market value of domestic labor, caregiving, and other feminized forms of unpaid work performed by wives, daughters, and mothers. However, in her sophisticated introduction to the second edition of her book (entitled Counting for Nothing in some later editions), Waring notes a double edge to these attempts at an economic account of women’s unpaid work. While arguing for the theoretical and practical importance of recognizing the scope and volume of unpaid labor in the economy, she also makes clear the dangers of attaching narrowly numerical values to women’s work, which has strong qualitative, ethical, and affective dimensions: “what is the cost of ‘visibility’ in a patently pathological value system?” she asks. “Do we want all of life to be commodified in an economic model?”4 Waring stops short of wondering whether a recognition of shared capitalist exploitation could provide a common political and strategic ground between house-working women and other exploited parts of the population.
While work on the capitalist exploitation of women’s unwaged labor has flourished in recent decades, versions of this critique can be found much earlier, for instance in an article by the American Marxist Mary Inman entitled “The Role of the Housewife in Social Production,” published in 1940. She presciently observed that “the labor of a woman, who cooks for her husband, who is making tires in the Firestone plant in Southgate, California, is essentially as much a part of the production of automobile tires as the cooks and waitresses in the cafes where Firestone workers eat.… [T]heir labor is as inseparably knit into those tires as is the labor of their husbands.”5
This cursory survey shows that throughout the last century, various currents in Marxism have focused on the role of unpaid labor in the creation of capitalist profits, through original accumulation, slavery, and housework-as-labor. Yet for much of that time, most Marxists still placed waged work at the center of their analysis of capitalist exploitation, to the exclusion of other forms of labor. Some even welcomed the expansion of waged relationships into economies where unwaged labor predominated as marking the arrival of “real” capitalism—itself seen as a disruptive but necessary stage in the progress toward socialism.
In the current era of neoliberal globalization, however, original accumulation, slavery, and housework, far from being replaced or superseded by wage labor, have instead continued and even expanded. And now we also see that even more forms of non-waged and sometimes even extra-monetary capitalist exploitation have been created. It could perhaps be argued that more exploitation takes place through these various mechanisms than in the conventional realm of wages and salaries.
While the theories discussed above have made great advances, Marxism as a whole has still yet to fully reckon with its preoccupation with the wage. What follows is an attempt to enumerate just some of the many pathways of capitalist surplus extraction, not only beyond the wage form, but also beyond original accumulation, slavery, and housework, and an argument that these other forms of exploitation are intrinsic and essential to capitalism.
We might for convenience’s sake divide capitalist forms of exploitation beyond the wage into several categories. First, wage work itself is being reorganized so that more of what is demanded of a worker is claimed not to be “work” at all, and is therefore not waged; workers are paid for less and less of their necessary labor time. For instance, precarious waged workers are increasingly expected to log unpaid “on-call” time: Starbucks employees must remain available for constantly changing shift assignments, which daily appear and disappear on their schedules. Similarly, restaurant employees must do prep work before clocking in or clean up after clocking out, home care nurses take home paperwork to finish at night, and white-collar workers check their email in the evenings, on weekends, and on vacation. Although these workers are waged, much of their work is not.
Other familiar forms of labor exploitation that are entirely outside the formal wage model are also expanding. Long recognized in the global South, various kinds of piece work and contract labor have a growing presence in the North as well. These include entirely unpaid or nominally paid labor, such as internships or prison labor, and workers labeled “independent contractors” if their jobs are menial or “freelancers” and “consultants” if they are slightly higher up the economic scale, from adjunct professors and Uber drivers, to TaskRabbit workers and day laborers, to self-employed copy editors and dog walkers.
While “original accumulation” remains an academic term, the phenomenon itself is widely recognized as a form of capitalist profiteering, despite its lack of a wage form. The seizure of natural resources, for example, has never ceased, as in the eminent domain exercised by pipeline construction companies in the United States, or the encroachment on indigenous lands for mineral extraction and other uses, part of a broader privatization of the commons. But original accumulation has also taken on new forms, such as civil asset forfeiture in the United States, which totaled over $5 billion in 2014, according to the Washington Post, and which is set for a revival under Trump’s Department of Justice.6 Subsidies, tax benefits, and bailouts for large corporations and financial firms, which clearly provide significant and ongoing profits, could also well be categorized as primitive accumulation, an upward redistribution of public money to the capitalist class, without even a gesture to the wider public in return. The age of “too big to fail” has made it entirely clear that these transfers of value are not just occasional windfalls, but are inherent to the very structure of contemporary capital accumulation.
The dizzying and ever-expanding suite of financial and monetary instruments used to drain cash from households are further forms of exploitation. Predatory housing lending and ballooning debts to credit card corporations and student loan companies point to the increasing prevalence of this mode of extraction. For many workers, “financialization” is no abstraction, but instead a daily reality, a ready means of appropriating value by paying with one hand, and taking back that pay with the other, through mounting debt, interest, and fees.
Just as the exploitative forms of primitive accumulation and piece work are common to the global North and South alike, financialization as a form of bleeding workers prevails across the globe. International debt—including its attendant interest payments, budget rules, and monetary restrictions—is one obvious means of using finance to extract value from workers in the global South. Less discussed today, but still important, is the global system of unequal exchange, first named in the early 1960s by the economist Arghiri Emmanuel.7 The subject of much theorization and debate, unequal exchange might be summed up as a phenomenon in which international trade conditions and foreign exchange relations tend to value (or undervalue) labor in a way that transfers profits to capitalists in the North. Any tourist in the global South who has noticed the lopsided value of the U.S. dollar or the euro vis-à-vis the currencies of former colonies and neo-colonies has experienced unequal exchange firsthand.
Still other forms of exploited labor appear less obviously as work, or even as mechanisms of exploitation. Housework has already been mentioned, but feminist economists, along with scholars studying peasant societies, have expanded the discussion of housework to include all kinds of subsistence work that support and subsidize capitalism.
The socially necessary wage, in Marx’s conception, was the amount required for workers to survive and reproduce themselves under prevailing social conditions. The unpaid labor of women and other subsistence workers, by producing essential use values at no cost to capital, serves to lower that necessary wage. When women cook meals for free, or raise children at home rather than send them to day care, or care for ill household members—all as unpaid “labors of love” —they provide direct economic subsidies to the socially necessary wage. If workers had to pay for those services, their wages would need to be far higher. Similarly, if women or other household members grow food in kitchen gardens or fields, or repair houses and make their own clothes, as they often do in the global South, this subsidy, combined with variations in living standards and labor conditions, enables even lower wages, and therefore higher profits. To use Maria Mies’s formulation, this unseen labor represents the submerged bulk of an iceberg, of which formal waged work forms only the tip.
Another form of unwaged exploitation is often called “shadow work”— something we all engage in and often loathe, yet usually do not think of as work, or even a means of exploitation. Coined by the philosopher Ivan Illich, shadow work encompasses unpaid labor created by capitalist enterprises, yet which in itself is entirely unproductive, with no purpose other than to service profit-making enterprises, for free—casting a kind of “shadow” outside the economy. Examples include activities novel enough to still draw our attention and frustration, such as slogging through endless automated phone trees to argue with health insurance companies, or installing endless updates to computer systems. Older forms of shadow work that we now take for granted include time spent paying bills, or checking bank accounts.8
In short, the capitalist exploitation of labor outside and beyond the wage form has been well documented for many years. Yet many Marxists continue to focus on the wage as the singular embodiment of capitalist exploitation. An expanded Marxist understanding of capitalist exploitation is long overdue. This is not merely an academic question, but a problem with profound implications for anticapitalist movements and organizations around the world.
Centuries ago, to become a waged worker was to suffer a steep decline in status, a condition that workers fought against as they clung to self-provisioning and self-organized, subsistence-based work. As original accumulation proceeded, the means of both subsistence and production were privatized, and access to those means of production was denied to all but the capitalists. At this point, wage work slowly rose to a status of relative privilege among the working classes, and “access to the wage” became access to more power than was available to other workers.9 When a worker was waged, he (for it was usually a “he”) and his work were at least acknowledged, and the terms of engagement with bosses could be perceived, delineated, and contested.9
Meanwhile, workers who labored under other, non-waged terms were reclassified as “economically backward,” and sometimes were defined as not-even-working. For familiar historical examples, think here of tenant farmers framed as a kind of feudal holdover, or the bourgeois creation of the housewife. Even when their low position in the capitalist hierarchy was acknowledged, unwaged workers came to be seen as “marginalized” or at best as “oppressed,” rather than as exploited. In fact, far from being peripheral to capitalism, the labor of unwaged workers is central to both the production and maintenance of capitalist profits.
This preoccupation with waged labor, and the associated perception that modern economics could not explain the supposedly vestigial and non-economic oppression of women or sharecroppers, may partly explain why many communities began to see a politics of identity, rather than economic solidarity, as their best path to public visibility and progress. Access to the wage foregrounds some workers while obscuring the laboring reality of others, fracturing the potential for unity across the multiple working classes. The wage has been used to divide us.
Every day shows us the advancing and expanding grip of capitalism, as it invades and commodifies ever more areas of personal life and experience. Yet at the same time, the number of conventionally waged workers is shrinking, with the rise of temporary contracts, piece work, informal jobs, and other precarious forms of employment. An insistence on wage work as the hallmark of labor under capitalism cannot make sense of this scenario; it must be clear now that the sphere of capitalism has far surpassed the sphere of waged work.
The orthodox Marxist vision has long been that workers would meet and unite in an industrial workplace, with the experience of shared exploitation in a shared productive endeavor fostering solidarity and class consciousness. Capitalists have always had other plans. And with the neoliberal assault on unions, labor protections, and the welfare state, new capitalist strategies have emerged to further expand the existing realm of unwaged work. For the working classes—waged and unwaged alike—to recognize their shared condition, the assumption that wages represent the totality of capitalist labor relations must be rejected. Workers of all kinds must focus on the underlying reality of the extraction of their surplus labor, whether shrouded by wages, piece work rates, unpaid shifts spent waiting to be called in, usurious interest payments, subsistence labor, or unpaid care work. The constantly proliferating variety of novel labor forms has proven an effective distraction from the task of building unity. It is the task of intellectuals to help reveal the hidden connections among seemingly disparate modes of exploitation. Additionally, we are well equipped to draw on the long and rich history of workers’ struggles under the many different work regimes of capitalism and to find and create new models and possibilities, both for resistance and for the creation of independent, worker-based economies.
As capitalism retreats from the wage form in the twenty-first century, it is time to widen our understanding of capitalist exploitation to include both centuries-old forms of extraction and those now being invented or newly deployed: the status of independent contractor, intern, or consultant; the shadow work of ever-lengthening commutes; and parasitic financial mechanisms. It is time to connect the dots among these many methods of surplus appropriation, and begin to build an intellectual foundation for a resurgent and unified working-class movement, before it is too late.


  1. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), 417.
  2. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
  3. Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor(New York: St. Martin’s, 1986).
  4. Marilyn Waring, Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), xxiv.
  5. Mary Inman, “The Role of the Housewife in Social Production,” reprinted in Viewpoint 5 (2015),
  6. Christopher Ingraham, “Law Enforcement took More Stuff From People Than Burglars Did Last Year,” Washington Post November 11, 2015.
  7. Arghiri Emanuel, Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972).
  8. Ivan Illich, Shadow Work (London: M. Boyars, 1981).
  9. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM, 2012).

2862. Climate Change: Out of Time

By  Richard Seymour, Patreon, March 14, 2018

“The dead rise and walk about
The timeless fields of thought” – Wendell Berry, A World Lost
All that is solid, melts.
Polar ice, packed hard and dense enough so that the air bubbles are squeezed out of it, glows a pale, forget-me-not blue. The blue of daylight. That’s because, as with water in its liquid state, the chemical bond between hydrogen and oxygen absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum. 
This is a time-sensitive phenomenon. You won’t see it during the winter, as new, first-year ice forms. Even if the wind causes ‘leads’ to open up in the new ice, and frost smoke erupts from the black waters as the heat is sucked into the atmosphere, the polar blue is submerged. You have to wait for the boreal quickening of summer, when a glacier the size of a cathedral might break away and float off into a sea of glass, circled by gothic black guillemots and puffins, and occasionally boarded by a ringed seal seeking sanctuary.
This arctic windfall will soon disappear forever, as will the sheets and shelves of frosted ice. The Arctic Ocean will be blue, at first during summer and then all year round, because it will be liquid: wide open for shipping lanes and military expeditions which are, even today, being plotted. The core of the ice which remains during the Arctic summer, is multi-year ice. Most of this ice volume is formed, not so much through the dendritic growth of ice crystals across the water, as through packing and deformation, with huge pressure ridges forming which slice deep into water and cut scours into land. This ice is shrinking. With it, the albedo – the capacity to reflect solar radiation – of the ice shrinks, thus speeding up the melting process. 
The best estimates suggest that by 2040, global temperatures will be too warm to sustain the northern ice-cap, and it will have melted. By 2100, the glacial era will be definitively over. The temperature and conditions that have remained almost identical underneath the ice sheets for over a million years, will change abruptly. An ecology of phytoplankton, amphipods, sea cucumbers, starfish, krill, seals, belugas, penguins (in the south), and polar bears (in the north), will break down. There may be one last ice renaissance, if the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation breaks down, with the effect of sharply cooling the northern hemisphere. That sharp glacial plunge will last for twenty years, and then the melting will resume. And humanity will have terminated three million years of periodic ice ages, perhaps forever.
The planet has been going through repetitive ice ages for perhaps three million years. The cooling of the earth had meant that the average temperature has been just low enough that small changes in the earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun has been able to produce periodic freezing. According to the glaciologist Peter Wadhams, the climate record shows us that once an ice sheet formed over what is now Greenland, toward the end of the Pliocene, the conditions for a long period of ice ages were created. The sudden advance and slow retreat, saw-tooth-like, of the glaciers at the poles has characterised the planet ever since. It was only thanks to this global climate and the relative stability it provided, Wadham argues, that humans were able to develop agriculture. No human ancestor, faced with the turbulent, baking hot, flood-prone climate of the Pliocene, could have dreamed up farming.
And now, something new begins. A sense of the untimelich descends. The untimelich, the uncanny sense of being out-of-time, often descends on us in the small hours, when we are small. For a starless, Hadean hour, we become the stain in the blanket; we become the worm in the casket. Was it a second that passed, or a half hour? Did time even pass? It’s impossible to tell. The reality principle, as Freud called it, with its temporal and physical laws, has momentarily disintegrated. And it is difficult to imagine, at such moments, that normality will ever resume, because normality itself has been infected by something terrible and strange. Now, the untimelich assumes the gigantic proportions of geological deep time. The unconscious has leaked into the planet’s rock records, a telluric tell-tale, and we call this the Anthropocene. A speck in the planet’s history, a stratigraphic nanosecond, but nothing will ever be the same.
The uncanny (unheimlich) is creepy because it is not just other; it is familiar while being other. It is not truly alien but, in Lacan’s term, ‘extimate’, the bit of the outside that sticks to the inside, or of the inside that belongs to the outside. It is home, the climate psychoanalyst Joseph Dodds points out, just as the word ‘ecology’ derives from the Greek word ‘oikos’ meaning ‘place to live’. It is the horrifying part of the homely, when it becomes the bearer of our deepest anxieties: the fear of annihilation, of being chewed up, poisoned, descending into madness. For Freud, the archetype of the uncanny is the maternal body, and the way that in fantasy it becomes a grave, much as the ‘Earth Mother’ is both a birthplace and a grave, the dirt to which we return. In the untimelich, the time of the living and the time of the dead, human history and the history of inorganic sediments, collide into one another. The cyclical time of seasons turns freakish, leaving us uneasily sweating in the clammy mid-winter. Spring comes too early, hurricane-force winds and flash floods break the October calm, the Arctic melts while Europe is wintering. As in a disaster dream, one catastrophe follows another. The progressive time of human civilization, already evacuated by being reduced to the endless accumulation of stuff, collapses into nonsense. The cycle of ice ages melts away for eternity. The progression of geological deep time, with its periods, eras and epochs speeds up so rapidly, that it precipitates a crisis in the temporal order itself: spinning so fast, we may as well be standing still. The Anthropocene is the name, not for the most advanced phase of human civilization, but for a sudden derailing: a spin-off reality, a meltdown.
When did it start? You could begin, in a Smithian perspective, with the invention of agriculture, or with industrialisation, each of which brought new technical means to bear on the planet’s surface. Or, taking a world-systems view, with the colonisation of the Americas at the outset of capitalist civilization. Ian Angus, in Facing the Anthropocene, reviews the literature of climatologists and geologists, and finds an emerging consensus: the middle of the last century. In the 1950s, everything began to spiral: carbon emissions, methane emissions, marine fish capture, ocean acidification, land use, biosphere degradation, extinctions, and of course global temperatures. The economy of war production, and the state-capitalist apparatuses birthed by it, generated unprecedented scales of production and globalised them. Since then, humans and their domestic animals have come to constitute 97% of the earth’s biomass, even as we undergo the ‘sixth great extinction’. And with these changes, the growing accumulation of new materials in the mineral deposit: “technofossils”. 
The trend lines since the industrial revolution had been upward. But until the middle of the last century, the increase was slow enough that the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius could anticipate most of the CO2 increase being absorbed in the ocean, and the rate of atmospheric concentration being so slow that it would 3,000 years to double. In fact, the doubling time is 75-100 years. Which means that, with a speed never seen before in the history of the planet, the Earth is being driven back to states not seen since the Miocene. Spinning so fast, we go backward. Accelerate this.
There is something eerie about all those hockey-stick charts. They were once, surely, part of the triumphalist narrative of capitalism, the Enlightenment harnessed to competitive accumulation. Land use, large dams, urban population, GDP, transportation, all soaring: this is progress, surely? Aren’t these the sorts of things for which Marx & Engels praised the bourgeoisie, in The Communist Manifesto? Wouldn’t these charts once have been boosterishly plastered over the walls of a geography classroom, proof that the system works? The idea that human beings exert such a dramatic impact on the planet would have been cause for high-fives: as Elon Musk said to Sam Harris, “Humanity rocks!” Now we find that even ‘sustainability’ won’t save us: forget geoengineering, even energy efficiency is a curse. The more efficiently we try to consume the earth, the faster it comes to consume us.
The story is not so much shocking as it is, unnerving. The Anthropocene, argue Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene, is no shock at all. “The story of awakening is a fable,” they say. At the outset of the industrial age, they say, people knew. The awakening is a fable, from this perspective, because some people were never asleep. The story of official Anthropocenology is that awareness began to spread thanks to the climatologists of the Sixties and Seventies, globalised with the Earth Summit of 1992, and finally achieved a hegemonic status with the third report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001. Now, thanks to the pioneering work of scientists, humanity can break with its past errors, its ignorance, its unwittingly loaded derogation of the ecological context for survival, and repair the damage.
Buried in this purview is the spontaneous philosophy of the scientist. “The scientific imaginary of the Anthropocene inherited ideologies, knowledge and technologies from the Cold War,” say Bonneuil and Fressoz, in which the planet is viewed from a god’s-eye-view, as a total, manageable, exploitable object. The Anthropocene inhabits and modifies this imaginary, so that ‘awareness’ becomes identified with the ability of states and military bureaucracies to internalise ecological knowledge, and integrate it into new forms of biopower and geopower, serving the small fraction of the Anthropos who actually bear most responsibility for the catastrophe. What the story of ‘awareness’ occludes is that at each stage of ‘acceleration’ in official Anthropocenology, there were writers, from Fourier to Vogt, who drew on numerous mainstream scientific papers to demonstrate threats posed by deforestation, carbonisation, and species-death. And to underline that human beings, through the great industrial and military experiments on the planet then being undertaken had become a geological agent. 
The ideology of ‘awareness’, purportedly representing a rift with triumphalist modernism, perpetuates its temporality and its telos – from darkness to Enlightenment, blind nature to human agency. And, with the natural scientist as our saviour, it clears the way for a technoscientific managerialism overriding public ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy’, rather than the democratic rupture that is required. Restoring the temporal order of modernity, under the sign of Enlightenment, it represses the unsettling knowledge that modernity itself, with its scorched earth, killing fields, and desertification is the virus implicated in the “brutalization of relations between society and nature”. More than this, in its hopeful stageism, its optimistic anticipation of that stage of the Anthropocene in which humankind assumes responsible governance of the earth, it represses the knowledge that we are no longer in this time. The derailing has already begun.
For there is something already untimelich about capitalism. The screen of capital shows us nature as a series of commodified abstractions. The most famous metaphor for this process is the sausage factory. In the sausage, one of the earliest human gustatory inventions, we encounter a meat. What capitalism has done is make each sausage a uniform iteration of a quantity of socially-necessary labour-time, which we never have to think about. The animal, the farm, the abattoir and the factory are elsewhere, off-site, far from where people live. The labour of rearing, domestication and slaughter, not to mention the ecological processes, the vicissitudes of weather and seasons, the work of other species and their life-processes, are all kept tactfully out of view. To put it another way, their consumers are kept out-of-time, protected from the knowledge of temporality and death, much as children are.
Capitalist production has extended the same logic everywhere: we have stocks of coal, silos of grain, mass produced vacuum-sealed packs, tins, crates and freeze-dried boxes of vegetables, fruits and meats. We don’t have to think about distance, or seasons, or any other natural limitation: as long as we keep feeding the machine, powering it with regular sums of labour-time, these items will magically turn up, in shops and warehouses packed with them, or at your doorstep. 
According to its own dreamwork, capitalism is the genie that can, in principle, always grant your wishes. In their own way, Alexa and Siri aspire to be the voice of that solicitous figment of capital. In this Neverland of eternal satisfactions, nothing ever happens except more stuff, more versions of the same stuff, more ideas for stuff, a timeless piling up of little wants to be instantly and habitually satisfied. It recognises no limit. In this sense, the child is the ideal consumer-subject, because children want instant satisfaction without limit, and with the illusion of not paying a price. Is it any wonder if this ideological universe turns morbid, and its friendly commodity-images of progress and plenty turn evil, and attack, like the child’s doll in a horror film?
The untimelich begins with a midnight sweat, the terror of going to sleep, and confronting one’s dreams. Now it stretches out indefinitely, and becomes indistinguishable from the dream we wake up to.