Tag Archives: capitalism

Grey Gru: Minions and Commodity-Form as Ecophagy

The finality of evil.
The finality of evil.

The laws of genre fiction dictate that a promising experiment backfires at approximately the same rate that a hard-drinking detective cracks the one case that’s been haunting them for years. Despite the permanency of laws, some things change: detectives get grittier, murders get sexier, and nuclear power has lost its place as the go-to MacGuffin battery to nanomachines. The apocalyptic extreme among the type of nerds who have VIP access to the transhuman post-fuckfest being cooked up by Roko’s Basilik is the appetizingly named “grey goo scenario.” From Wikipedia:

Gray goo (also spelled grey goo) is a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves,[1][2] a scenario that has been called ecophagy (“eating the environment”).[3]

Frankenstein. Skynet. The brooms from Fantasia. The fear of an invention “getting away” from and turning on its creator takes many forms. It may start getting pretty predictable after a while. Remember the old rhymes: “If pharmaceuticals you see, then zombies there be; if radiation abound, then kaiju around; a fem-bot mañana, mecha-vagina dentata”; and so on.

The problem with these scenarios never seems to be going too far, but not going far enough. Why would a man-made disaster that reduces the realm of experience to one horrible, qualitatively homogeneous mess be limited to the literal eating of the world? If there is something in our genes that inclines us to turn everything into one featureless monocolored smear, why wait for robots?

Futurologists had warned us of the
Futurologists had warned of the “meme crunch” scenario for years.

Have you been online lately? Minions are everywhere. Fucking everywhere. Perhaps by the time you read this they’ve become so commonplace that you can’t even notice them anymore. They’ve gone from the stuff that is everywhere to being the stuff that is everywhere.

We swim in them, mouths agape, recycling and drinking and pissing and sometimes freezing in minions during the winter without even noticing. This is minions. And while it might be more appropriate to see them as a kind of memetic malfeasance (…laughs), there is one interesting thing about the path to Minion oversaturation that distinguishes them from run-of-the-mill litter.

In the first installment of the Despicable Me franchise (2010), it’s strongly implied that the protagonist Gru was the original creator of the Minions. By the time of their eponymous spin-off five years later, we have learned that they’re a sort of primordial species that has existed for as long as, if not longer than, humanity. Minions have served as pages for every blood-drenched tyrant throughout history (but not during the World Wars…really makes you think). In our enlightened age, every reasonable person knows that Minions are exactly what they claim to be, perfectly natural. Despite a grievous lack of mainstream airtime or funding, adherents to the original Despicable Mythos nonetheless persist.

Of course, those errant whiffs of Frankenstein(‘s monster) that you’re detecting always lead us back to that classic Gothic horror that we all love – that’s right folks, I’m talking about classic Kapital.

Imagine, if you will, an all-consuming, self-replicating entity that threatens to erase the distinctions that give coherency or meaning to anything that you’re stupid enough to love. Some terror that broke free of its master’s control and devours children with the same efficiency that it turns entire nations into uninhabitable wastes. A beast that turns lifelong comrades against one another with invisible efforts. A creature that only seems to grow smarter and stronger with each drop of blood that you extract at the cost of a whole battalion. Something that doesn’t sleep, turns to fog, and never stops moving in pursuit of its next victim.

You get the idea. Nonetheless, I’m obliged to state plainly:

Capital is the grey goo.

It’s here. It’s eating everything. We’re drowning in it.

I’m not who you should be reading about the many ways that capital violently opens up new markets where monetary exchange was once unthinkable (through enclosure or worse). I’m not capable of fully explaining the implications of capital’s explosive growth cycle (where money is exchanged for commodities for the purpose of becoming a larger pile of money, M-C-M’). That cycle brings with it the imposition of the commodity form, meaning an exchange-value is attached to more stuff than ever. The bigger this system, the more difficult it becomes to discern the exploitative social relations that made exchange possible. Still, I think it was David Harvey who phrased it like this: if you can put a price tag on one thing, you put a price tag on anything.

Long story short, the commodity form not only affects everything, but transforms it, and breaks down the world into that which we cannot readily grasp or distinguish- so, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Describing the scale of the transformation is one thing, but responding to it is another. What is there left to do when you’re living in a world that has been ravaged by an end-of-world scenario?

keep calm and mini on
They reproduce faster than you can scroll. The page will outlast you.

The best place to start may be simply disobeying the posters.

Chains of being

In the old days, I hear, people generally understood themselves as belonging to a great chain of being. God was on top, angels and assorted spiritual beings in the middle, then people – appropriately subdivided – followed by animals, plants, and minerals. There was no particular shame in being either a King or being a peasant: you were born into it, like your father was, and society required people in both roles to continue. For many weary millennials, there’s even a bit of appeal in the idea of never having to undergo another anxious job search or climb a corporate ladder with all due speed, lest one gets branded as a loser. If job security means having to start work on the family farm at age 4, sign me up.

The great chain of being had little chance to survive intellectually after Darwin gave a sharp reply to the wiseguy who first asked, “If Kings evolved from peasants, then why are there still peasants?” Of course, material changes of the 18th-19th centuries, such as the enclosure of common land, sale of land and titles, and shift from agrarian to industrial economic bases in Western nations had the greater impact of changing the makeup of society’s elite. Without the divine placement of gods to confer them legitimacy, the wealthy were in need of a new myth. Presidents and parliaments were able to point to some notion of democratic will, but what of those who held a different kind of power? Neoliberalism, as the slickest program-cum-ideology yet to accompany capitalism, settled on meritocracy.

“The cream will rise to the top.” “The people at the top must be the hardest working and most deserving.” This new way, as you may know, is marked by uncertainty and the idea that social mobility is possible. Now, men have been prone to anxious disorders throughout history, but were not diagnosed as “hysteric” for political or social reasons. Some doctors were surprised to see the nervous symptoms of what they called hysteria cropping up in men who worked and rode the newly created railroads of their century. Without the celestial chain calling the shots, people had to grapple with questions of “living authentically” and status anxiety and similar things. Do I follow security with a steady job or pursue my artistic interest? Should I neglect my home life to rise faster in the ranks at work? Even if you have the relative luxury of making these choices freely, it will likely end in your designation as an innate loser for failing to ruthlessly accumulate your way to the top.

In the words of Wikipedia-quoted sociologist Laurie Taylor:[43]

The hideous thing about meritocracy is it tells you that if you’ve given life your all and haven’t got to the top you’re thick or stupid. Previously, at least, you could always just blame the class system.

It doesn’t take a single mother to know that the people who work the hardest don’t always end up on top. Unfortunately, due reverence for the radiant Fortuna has been replaced by the worship of a total misunderstanding of this dipshit.

Marx stuff starts here

Marx made a number of observations that can help us understand the uneven shift from feudal to capitalistic economies. Understanding this material shift helps us see how the myths of desert (as in “deserving”) are connected and similarly post hoc. He saw capitalism as an inherently global system even before it spread out from Europe to all continents, breaking down barriers to trade and marginalizing superstitions that dare stand in the way of the profit motive. As most invocations of the “invisible hand” metaphor makes obvious, capital has the unstoppable, divine, and seemingly capricious power that was once attributed to God. Among the changes it would bring to the world would be the end of the feudal system’s beliefs and practices. Marx’s letter to Abraham Lincoln commending him for waging war on the South spells out clearly enough that slavery was one of the pre-capitalist formations which Marx was eager to see dropped in the dustbin of history. Slavery was of course assumed be to a part of the “natural order” – slaves just naturally fit below slaveholders, who were naturally closer to angels, on the celestial chain. To be sure, supporting all holdovers of feudal society, simply because they undermine the brutal system of capitalism, would lead to perversion. Practices need to be considered not only for how they have appeared in the past, but for how they might adapt if they were to last into a post-capitalist arrangement.

Attacks on religious expression are an example of a program undertaken by left-leaning individuals without thought for how this may be a part of capital’s larger approach to destroying sources of meaning outside of itself. Zizek, certainly not the best launching point for discussions of multiculturalism, nevertheless illuminates the issue here:

The problem of pseudo-choice also demonstrates the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as the result of personal choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality. In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular liberal democracies, people who maintain a substantial religious allegiance are in a subordinate position: their faith is ‘tolerated’ as their own personal choice, but the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them—a matter of substantial belonging—they stand accused of ‘fundamentalism’. Plainly, the ‘subject of free choice’, in the ‘tolerant’, multicultural sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being uprooted from one’s particular life-world.

Capital is a jealous god which does not tolerate the worship of what it may register as false idols. Strong religious allegiance, then, is one example of a thing it will continue to marginalize and diminish. On the contrary, Marx and Engels never saw some sort of “defeat of religion” as a necessary condition for moving society forward. Engels wrote in his Principles of Communism: “All religions so far have been the expression of historical stages of development of individual peoples or groups of peoples. But communism is the stage of historical development which makes all existing religions superfluous and brings about their disappearance.” The distinction between this “withering away” and the foolish, ahistorical view that sees religion as the only form myth may take and a major impediment to Progress(? Whose? To what end?), such as Dawkins or Hitchens or another latter-day sophist might espouse, cannot be overstated.

The Marx stuff is over

Religious demands to dominate and control bodies, especially women’s bodies, are the sort of feudal holdover that deserve serious concern. The failure of capital’s custodians to dispose of this relic in a timely manner is a reminder of their priorities. Contemporary expressions of feudalism are permitted and even encouraged if it makes the work of accumulation run more smoothly. When traditional families request even small accommodations, well, they’re not guaranteed to win. Maintaining the chain of meritocracy helps to keep the system running and internalizes a measure of desert over their station in life. You have no one to blame for yourself. People who have no one to blame but themselves don’t go around blaming other people, let alone guillotining them. If others are to be blamed, a suitable Other is sure to be found.

For all our talk of rationality and worship at the altar of Neil Degrasse Tyson, we are still dominated by a type of celestial myth. It does not come bearing a crown and Sovereign’s Orb, but decontextualized test scores and a signed copy of “Lean In.” The next great advance in human civilization, the one we will hope to see, will have to be accompanied by a new paradigm. It is rewarding to internally and externally reject the myth of meritocracy and consider and champion new ways – or old and untested ways – people can relate to their fellow humans, animals, and the world around them. We have nothing to lose but our chains of being.