Naomi Klein makes a good living bitching about capitalism.
And Nietzsche, I sometimes think Nietzsche thought that if the hierarchically lucky (the ones with the money, the beauty, the strength) aren’t destined to have their lucky lives vetoed and revoked in some apocalyptic rug-pull – that if the poor have a bad time and the rich have a good time and that’s all there’ll ever be to say about the matter, that if the good and bad luck and good and bad lives of the rich and poor or pretty and ugly won’t be abruptly taken back when the books are fully, finally balanced – if the judge is just us, and we die, and there is no one, or nothing, to make it all all right in the end, then luck is as much as there is to the good – the whole of the good is luck, and the whole of the bad is lack of it – and the bankers living better than the beggars are living better lives, in every sense, just because they were lucky, and being lucky is better, and being luckiest – like the banker – is best.
Or is the one who thinks this the capitalist? Perhaps it is. That might be why, for the capitalist, money is a kind of secular key to the good. It’s not a key – I mean – in the sense that it measures the good, or puts a number on it (where ‘more’ says ‘better’). I mean it measures everything else: it is a key to the good in the sense that it is a route to it. Consider markets. You might think that markets are important to the capitalist in the way that they are because they know – or promise to know – the price of everything: they provide a rolling referendum on what matters. They arrive at their prices by an automatic action that proceeds independently of any conscious controller, or ideally so proceeds. The prices needn’t reflect the value of any priced item: their precise quantities might as well have been discovered by luck (though we’re entitled to suspect that that isn’t the case, just as we’re entitled to suspect that the success of monopolists and other role models of capitalism reflects a sort of merit that belongs intrinsically to the successful, making their successes inevitabilities which others would do well not to resent). Markets might promise to tell the capitalist the price of everything, but the prices themselves, the prices as quantities – and quantities that refresh themselves all the time – aren’t what matters. For him, what matters is just that things be priced. If he can know the price of everything, he thinks, he can know that everything has a price.
Compare fame. It, too, accommodates a market: a market in people. Like money in the financial markets, it is allocated automatically, as by a mindless collective. In fame, the recognition of the collective does duty in a finite way for the recognition that might have been granted by the all-surveilling eye of the infinite itself. This recognition might be granted to anyone or for anything. It might be allocated by lottery. The point – the reason why we insist that everyone should eventually be famous, and for anything – is that everyone should equally lack value that isn’t decided by luck. People can indeed be famous, but nothing more. It is as much as they can expect. In fame – or such is the promise – the pinpoint singularity of the unrecognised man – of the individual whose past for him amounted only to an opportunity to escape into a future he wasn’t able to live – is blunted and contained in a way that it might have been by love, had love, here, been preferred to power.
The capitalist gets rich. He gets famous. He is youthful and fit. And he is unhappy. Why? He has signed his happiness away. He doesn’t want happiness. He gave it up for something better. He didn’t give it up for money or for fame. He might have thought it was about money or fame, but it wasn’t. These things are incidental. We can be penniless capitalists; many of us are. We can be capitalists in obscurity or in poverty. For what the capitalist wants is power. And he doesn’t want power to be happy: he wants power to be powerful. When the capitalist says he loves freedom, he means he loves power. Since capitalists love power, they love wealth, youth and strength, but above all they love increase, because wealth and youth and strength perish, and perish even as we stand still, and we are powerless to stop this, so the things that manifest our power – its possessions, its assets – must be increased and replenished all the time if we are to retain it.
With his money and markets, the capitalist knows the price of everything, and, because he knows the price of everything, he knows that everything has a price. He knows that everything has a price but him, the one who knows the price of everything. His demand is that the power to value should reside only in him. This interest in power – in particular, power over the good – can account for his interest in money and markets. He prefers to portray his interest in money and markets as unromantically utilitarian, or as mundane and sensible; it is not mundane and sensible at all. Indeed, his interest in money is an interest in quantity, and his interest in markets an interest in luck. Money, which is a quantitative proxy for value, and markets, whereby luck sets the price of everything offered for sale, are a route to the good for the capitalist. That good is power – in particular, power over the good – and markets are how the capitalist secures his power.
If a thing is priced by a market, its value is reduced to the quantity of its price. It is reduced, that is, to a number. Now numbers are inert and mute: they don’t have lives of their own or voices of their own. And since they can’t speak for themselves, we can speak for them. Like theories in physics – General Relativity and quantum mechanics are only the most consequential examples – they can’t in their own right tell you what they mean. (It’s almost as if truth needs to be combined with falsehood to yield meaning, and the theories of physics are, in isolation, too true.) Quantum physics stands notoriously in need of interpretation (so much so that the century since its discovery has seen physicists turning to philosophers, of all people, for guidance), and – though it has had its share of inspired interpreters – so it stands even now. To give any genuinely strong interpretation, the interpreter would have to impose himself on the theory, disrupting a silence it has always kept.
It’s this muteness, or inarticulacy, that links numbers with luck. We call chance ‘blind’, but it’s also mute. This has to do with its indifference. It is indifferent to all last things, and indifferent indeed to last words. Among last things, the last words we get or do not get matter very much to us. But luck is indifferent. It itself doesn’t want the last word. And, if it doesn’t want the last word itself, neither does it want any word to be the last. It will grant you the last word, but after that there will be another, and then another. You’ll get it, perhaps, but it will be your bad luck not to keep it. I said luck was indifferent: it is reluctant, really. Its reluctance is the last word it will have. Luck’s is a life left open. If it renders judgements at all, they are not final. And if it doesn’t kill you – which it will, when your luck runs out – you can put words in its mouth, deciding on its behalf what it has said. It can upset your grandest plans, but it can’t contradict you: having no life of its own, it has no vision of its own, and no voice.*
The capitalist covets power over the good. He can have this power, but he cannot make it positive. It is negative in practice. It is gained by elimination (it is gained for as long as the capitalist can establish that there is no value in the world). If he can empty the world of value, denying it to everything else that lives, he can establish by elimination that all value is in one place – in him – and establish his power by invalidating as a whole the world outside it. (Note too that, if the capitalist sees the world as inert and devoid of intrinsic value, killing it will mean nothing.) With his power established, the capitalist can decide what has value in the world and what does not. He gains the power, for instance, to tell the market what it means by its prices. But, because his project is in fact impossible, he is in a predicament. He can tell the world what has value in it, and tell it whether it itself has value, but he can only ever tell it that nothing in it has value, and that it itself is without value – and that, by implication, the only value is in him – because if he does not tell it this, he sacrifices the power to value which his wholesale denial of the world was supposed to secure. So the capitalist puts words in luck’s mouth, but all it ever says for him is that its judgement isn’t final. And all a price can ever mean, in his telling, is that there is something – there is one thing – that is priceless.
The capitalist is a killer. His era has been marked, in the natural realm, by a great dying, and, in the human realm, by genocide. By now are in a position to see why. The pre-eminent concern of the capitalist is to put everything into the past. When everything is in the past but him, when everything falls behind him and nothing ahead, a complete power and a complete freedom is seized: in this way, the future can be his and only his to own, and only he will remain to colonise it as God might have, if God hadn’t had to be killed as well. The capitalist, like Nietzsche, loves the aristocrat – not the stock aristocrat with his quant title and quainter attire, the aristocrat of the singular, the most individual man, the man whose world is all behind him and in his grip, the man who consumed everything before he himself could be consumed and who lives fully in the future, in a future that is his, a future that does not pass into the past.
The capitalist is in crisis. In this he is like his counterpart, the green. But the capitalist’s crisis is not in the future. The green has his apocalypse: he is in crisis because he trusts that there is an apocalypse to come. The capitalist foresees no such fate: his apocalypse is here, and in his future he will have left it behind. He has no time for the worldly future of the green. He knows that in that future everyone lives in the present, still, but at a later time. He knows that this is the future of later – and he would sacrifice this future for a fingernail. His future is his, and the whole of time – the extinct past, the expiring present and the future in which a planetary emergency has been provoked by exponential growth – time itself will be sacrificed for its sake, and for the sake of the absolute life, the life that is lived there.
We must not tell lies about the capitalist. One lie we must not tell is about his identity. We must not pretend that we are not capitalists. Even if we are greens, we must not pretend that we were not, in the first place, capitalists.
This Changes Everything, says Naomi Klein, alluding to the apocalypse to come. But the capitalist knows that everything is already changing: insofar as he is free, he is free from the change, and his power is the power to make the last change, the change freeing him from the change. Characteristically for a green, Klein is an elegist. She mourns the time before she was a capitalist, a time before time broke open into the particular. She mourns the ’steady state‘. The villain she names is not capitalism but ‚extractivism‘, which means the conversion of the enduring value of the world into a moment’s profit, and, at the same time, the conversion of the living value of the world into waste matter. It is an aspect of capitalism and, in criticising this aspect of it alone, Klein can criticise capitalism without departing from it too much, and without discrediting herself as an irrational radical.
The metaphor in Klein’s final chapter is one of fertility. Why is it right to juxtapose this theme with the extractivist one? Klein is not explicit about it, but we know why. The capitalist kills. His antagonist is authentically the mother. The fertility of mothers might underwrite a politics of life, but he only permits a cult of death. Since he serves only himself, and a future life into which he alone lives, he is essentially sterile. Even if he does have children, his children will be capitalists too. Klein knows all this first-hand. Having lived the life of a leftwing writer – the life of a capitalist anticapitalist – she has become alienated from her body and from nature. More specifically, she has been trying for a baby, and her body has been refusing to play along. She turns to medicine, but is disappointed by the doctors. Finally she falls pregnant when she relocates. It is British Columbia and a house on its southwestern Sunshine Coast that makes the difference. Klein is not, however, in the business of memoir: the book isn’t just about her struggle, any more than it is just about the capitalist and his extractivism. It is about something more – and in her pointed appeal to the theme of fertility, Klein is making an argument against something more than extractivism: she appeals to it in urging a return from capitalist to precapitalist time, from time’s arrow to time’s cycles, from the open to the closed circle. She advocates a return from the ‚more and more‘ of growth to a steady state, a state of sustainability.
The demand for a return from a linear course of loss and gain to a steady state is a capitalist one: it is captive to capital. The steady state, were it actually to be realised, would have to be realised in the future, like the capitalist’s absolute life. (There is loss or there is gain, but never rest.) The point of it is just to take the place of the apocalypse that would befall us if the capitalist’s state of increase was not corrected and checked. But the appeal to the steady state is sentimental. The steady state is a fiction just as false as the absolute life that so seduces the capitalist. If they were honest – if they were honest with themselves – the greens would ask us to take a loss. Their demand is that we renounce. And if you are credibly to make such a demand, your sincerity should be shown in what you do as well as heard in what you say. You should lead by example. You should be the first to renounce.
It’s best to approach the problem of the steady state through the problem of population growth. In the capitalist’s state of increase, more and more capitalists are born. Soon – says the green – there will be more capitalists on the earth’s surface than it can safely support. It is partly for this reason that she predicts an apocalypse: this is an increase in numbers that will need to be checked, she says, if apocalypse is to be avoided. But does she not fall into paradox, here? On the one hand, she asks us to act decisively to save lives. On the other hand, she asks us not to have so many children – that is, not to create so many lives. In an apocalypse we all die, but that’s normal; it is not the apocalyptic thing. The apocalyptic thing is that after an apocalypse no one can live. So if the apocalypse is avoided, lives after it are saved. Those lives can be saved, the green says. We can save them by declining to have children now.
The green dedicates herself to the hypothetical generations of the future, hoping, perhaps, that they won’t be capitalist ones. The people of these generations will never be known to her. She’ll never meet them. She cannot meet them any more than she can meet mankind itself. She cannot live in their future – the future in which apocalypse has been avoided – but she makes genuine sacrifices for it: she sacrifices one or two of the children she might have had. Though she is herself just one human, the green makes a promise to humanity. But is the promise she makes enough even for her? The green’s is a very grim vision: all it offers is a sort of longevity. It is not a vision of a future in which apocalypse has been avoided. No one lives in that future, or could: this is what the capitalist knows. That future is in fact one in which apocalypse is being avoided. To defuse the threat of apocalypse we would have to disinvent development: we would have to bomb ourselves back to the stone age. In the future in which apocalypse has been avoided, then, apocalypse impends. The green’s is a vision of generation upon generation living just for the sake of keeping going, with each generation just waiting for the next to take its turn. In the green’s future, everybody would have one eye on the survival of the species in the long term, giving up the numbered days of a life for an immortality no one lives. The capitalist lives in a crisis he does not accept. In the future recommended by the green, he will accept that he unalterably lives under threat of apocalypse; his reward for this is the promise that the species, which has no life of its own, will live forever.
But the green is a creature herself of capital. She is a critic of the capitalist she is. In the absolute life of the capitalist, everything is in the past but him and nothing remains to die. The green simply substitutes an absolute mortality for this absolute life. Its effect is to remind the capitalist that he cannot have his absolute life. And it is true: the capitalist will never have his absolute life. But neither will the green have her apocalypse: there can’t be an apocalypse, because only individuals die. The last individual does not know he is the last. When the last individual has died, there will be no one to mark the death. If the capitalist’s escape is from loss, and time’s power to pass away, and his powerlessness against this, and if – in his failure – time still passes away from him, and he is disappointed, the green’s escape is from her life as a capitalist, and – in her failure – time simply passes her by. If the past is dead to the capitalist, and he seeks power, and is disappointed in his search for it, the green does her best to bring the past back to life: the future for her is death. She tries to accept her powerlessness, but, being powerless, she can’t; she has to try again and again. The capitalist, in failure, discovers a disappointment that iterates itself like the forever between facing mirrors. His fate is regress, but the green’s is to repeat herself, trying again what she has already tried. Having failed in her attempt to bring the past back to life, she makes the attempt again. To provide an answer is in the power of neither protagonist. Theirs are styles, stances. Theirs are ways of dying, ways of life.
Expecting the end of the world, the green gains a debt. The debt cannot be discharged. For the capitalist, the future is to be dominated; for the green, with her undischargeable debt, it is to be deferred to. Though she dedicates herself to it, it isn’t satisfied, and the threat of apocalypse isn’t dispelled.** In this state of debt, she isn’t saved from her capitalist life. She hasn’t escaped it. Rather, she has reinterpreted it. And – in this state of debt – she acquires new vices. Looking to the past as an alternative to an apocalyptic future, she is struck by its special value, and by a sense that it is being debased and denied in the present. It is being debased, but it is being debased in the present she is in. Thus she lives as if in exile from it. She might experience this exile as an abandonment or an alienation; either way, it is soundtracked by nostalgia. The green succumbs to a bitter nostalgia – a nostalgia for a time before her debt was incurred – and devotes herself to elegy and lament in a ritual that is pious and boring at the same time. The situations of the green and the capitalist are not symmetrical, however. The green’s anticapitalism is precarious and forced; she is always lapsing back into her capitalist past. But the capitalist – or capitalist who has had success — will not be pushed to become a green by anything short of the apocalypse itself.
The Democrats in the US have long been asking themselves why every American worker is not a Democrat. It’s the Democrats who are looking out for them in Washington. It’s the Democrats who are fighting their corner, so why won’t they vote for the right party? What’s the matter with them? The green needs also to ask this question, but in her own way: why isn’t everyone a green? Apocalypse is in no one’s interest. Why isn’t everyone marching arm-in-arm with Klein or with Natalie Bennett, working together to effect the reformation of a regime that risks global collapse? In the explanations she has attempted, the green has adduced a kind of false consciousness – a blanket denial of the bad news related to us by the scientists – that is sponsored and coordinated as by a conspiracy among the parties that profit from the current, perilous state of play. (Klein’s word is ‚ideology‘; it is a vice of the greens to write as though all the invidious business people pursue could be explained by their bad ideas.) But, in her preference for such explanations, the green exhibits a commitment to her own kind of denial, a denial that denies – as it were – in the other direction.
Take the Democratic Party, again. They ask: If you are poor yourself, why wouldn’t you vote for the party of the poor? Well, you might not see yourself as poor: it might not be in your interest to see yourself as poor. Seeing yourself as poor, you’d have accepted poverty – and you might justifiably have the sense that, in accepting this, you’d be impoverishing yourself. Accepting it, you’d need also to accept that you’d lived for a future in which no one would be poor – a future such as your vote for the party of the poor might do something to bring about. But the people of this future are not people you might meet. This future has nothing to do with you, in poverty, in the present. It would work only as a very weak anaesthetic, and what you need is something strong. Would it not instead be in your interest just not to accept your poverty, and to live, in the present, for yourself, as if you were not poor?
Greens are like Democratic politicians who think of themselves as the legitimate champions of an exploited and downtrodden majority, but fail to win the loyalty of any such majority at the polls.
fail to win the support of such a majority at the polls. The green’s is not the party of the poor, though: it is the party of humanity. The problem for the green is that we are humans – and it’s we, rather than humanity, who have the vote. The green asks that we dedicate ourselves to a future in which humanity never dies, but, in order to believe that you’d do better living for humanity than living for yourself, you’d need to accept that you couldn’t be saved. You’d need to accept that you were dying. I don’t know that this is possible. I don’t know that I know what it would mean to accept this: the whole of living is in living as if one were not dying. If one lives as if one were dying, one does not live. Surely no one – not even the green – is more compelled by any promise made in the name of an impalpable parade of unborn generations than he is by his own passing life. Nothing, surely, could be more compelling, or more authentic, than that.
In the present, we feel that our lives might be made more worth living if we had children, and that our families‘ lives, though they might be very hard, would be worth living too, but we don’t know that the lives we might save by not having children would be worth living, and don’t even know who might live them, if they are so different from us that they would not think, like us, that their lives might be made more worth living if they had children, or if they burned the fossil fuels we left in the ground so that they might live. This, I suspect, is why the green’s heart has never been in it. The green has never rivalled the capitalist for sheer vitality. Certainly, she has not had his passion for power, but neither has she had his passion for nothingness, for murder, for the mortification of the other. She has lacked his competence, his strategic focus. This is because the capitalist has something to live for – that is, his life – but she, having accepted death, has only dying to do. Or has she accepted it? I’m not sure. I’m not sure I know what a life lived according to green ideas would look like, and I’m still less sure that any actual green has lived one. Being, in the first place, a capitalist, the green is not compelled more by the welfare of an impalpable humanity than she is by her own passing life. To put into practice a politics of the steady state would anyway be very demanding; she prefers to be out of power. Out of power, and unable to implement her apocalyptic politics, her preferred mode is one of protest and complaint. In that passive position, her heart can be in it, and she either busies herself producing a bitter commentary on the selfish concerns of the capitalists surrounding her, or becomes a poet, a purveyor of nostalgia, the fluently pious elegist of an era before individuality intervened in time, bringing ageing, and age, and the end of age
What is it that makes the green’s politics so difficult to put into practice? It’s not just that we’d have to do it in time, where we are individuals with responsibilities to ourselves as well as to our successors in the species. In time, we all have capitalist pasts, and any reforming programme would have to be launched after we had lived as capitalists. Indeed, the story of the capitalist has not been a story of loss alone: the problem is that we now have something that, in the eventless past when we were not capitalists, we did not have. Capitalists to the end, we have given ourselves something to lose. When we lost the infinite, we gained the future, which is its image. In a way, the green’s future of apocalyptic collapse is the future the capitalist has been able to do without. In his state of increase, headed as he is towards a future of absolute privacy and power – a future of absolute life – the capitalist is always in the process of giving apocalypse up. He has not been thinking of a future in which humanity will or will not extinguish itself – or even of a past such as provides an occasion for futile lament – but of his own future, his own fate. And if we have been capitalists, we already have that future when the green arrives and asks us to give it up for the good of mankind.
A green politics is untenable, then. It asks us to be less compelled by the lives in which we participate in person than by the claims of a faded pageant of future generations whom we cannot meet or even trust to take our sacrifices into account. Not only that, it also asks that we accept an experience of loss we have, as capitalists, been in flight from all our lives. You might say that a green politics – or any politics of the state of rest – offers nothing to the human and everything to humanity – except it offers less than nothing to the human. Under any regime formed on the model of a green theory of the steady state, we’d be giving up life for living; we’d give up a life after time for a time after that life. The capitalist has always rejected rest. But if we renounced even this, and rejected the rejection, it would still be something we’d once had; life would be life without it. Could we live that life? Were we indeed to attain it, and lie down to rest, we still wouldn’t have escaped whatever it was we wanted to escape; at rest, or in a state of paralysis without peace, we would suffer that thing uniquely and without reprieve. Perhaps it was never rest we wanted: perhaps the state of rest was itself a way to escape, disguising a desire to escape escape. Perhaps the politics of the pursuit of rest was an escape – a therapy we could live rather than a cure we’d have to lack for. Still – and for all that – the politics of the state of rest is unsound.
Capital is often said to have a ‚logic‘. I would suggest that the force of its logic is just the force of our being unable give time back to it, and fold the future back into the past. In the case of the critics of capital – and in the case, in particular, of those who speak of its ‘logic’ – this is clear to see. The critics of capital are capitalists, and they are sincere. So this isn’t hypocrisy. The capitalist is authentically his own critic. His natural triumph would be to achieve a power so complete that even he was subject to it; having taken his project to its logical conclusion – having succeeded at it – he would be so impossibly powerful that he could kill himself without dying. The critics of capital have roused themselves to no such success. If they are capitalists, it is not in death. They are capitalists day by day. And what they do with their days is write. Klein has four books to her name. Her Wikipedia entry documents contributions to The Nation, In These Times, The Globe and Mail, Harper’s Magazine and The Guardian. And writing has been no exception, here. It has followed the capitalist formula to a fault. The writer could even be a model for the capitalist – except he doesn’t consume goods, or the minerals mined from the earth. He consumes time. He consumes events. He consumes the things that happen, converting them into words in the way that markets convert the living earth into goods for sale. If anything is ‚extractivist‘, it is the writer’s art. The writer raids life for sentences. These he produces, polishes, and – one after another – puts behind him. The sentences make a work, and the works a body of work – finished and complete and self-contained. Rather than himself living the life that lies at hand, he is only concerned to kill it before it can be lived. So he extracts his sentences from it, and makes sure he is always in position to watch them lapse lifelessly into the past.
The effective critique of capital will not be a critique. It will not be commentary. The green might have got a more sympathetic hearing if she’d kept quiet. As it is, her words are the waste product of another capitalist endeavour. We can’t undercut capital through commentary any more than we can uproot it through revolution. What takes us forward is not what we need. I’ve said that the green should renounce, and should be the first to renounce. And I’ve said that capital can indeed claim a kind of logic. Its logic inheres in this: what it gives us it gives us irreversibly. It gives us an alternative to a life that passes (giving us an alternative as soon as it gives us a life). It gives us the future itself. And this is what is irreversible: the capitalist has something to renounce. This doesn’t mean that there was a time when things were reversible, it means that increase was once mere increase; it was not attended by loss. The capitalist cannot give back what he’s been given to lose. This entails that the expectation of a return to something – of a reconciliation, a restoration – is implicit in capitalist life. This notion of return attests to a despair it does nothing to overcome. For it is precisely an idea: it haunts the capitalist just as the perception of loss haunts the state of increase he sponsors. The return, if it is to be real, must be a renunciation. It implies an apocalyptic acceptance of the very thing we are condemned, as capitalists, to attempt to escape. We would have to accept time. We would have to renounce the promise of power, and all hope of escape, and resign ourselves to this loss, carrying on in honour of a hope we only commemorate, but commemorate by carrying on.
We still need Nietzsche. Nietzsche – who was first a critic of classical literature – is the necessary critic of capitalism. We should not see the Nietzschean critique of Christianity and its morality as an idiosyncratic campaign to disestablish a dying religion. We should see Christianity as a function – indeed a symptom – of capitalism, and we should see Nietzsche, in his campaign against Christianity, as an anti-capitalist of a singular kind. He is the greatest of greens. So he is a critic of capitalism’s criticism of itself because he sought to transform the capitalist – the critic of himself – into nothing less than a person. He is a critic of Christian morality, which despairs of the life of the capitalist, because he sought to convert the capitalist’s despair into joy.
This was Nietzsche’s ‚transvaluation‘. His idea was to get us to see capitalist life as good in itself. The criticism of the capitalist is capitalist, but Nietzsche thought that if we could see the criticism of the capitalist as historical – or as contingent on Christianity and its morality – we might be able to accept the life of the capitalist as the good life. In his new story about capitalism, Christianity – an old story – has lied to us in telling us it is bad. Christianity is to blame for it, or for the sense that it is a bad thing and a thing we need a higher power to save us from. So Nietzsche tells us that the life of the capitalist is the master’s life, and that it can and should be lived – whereas what Christianity thought it knew was that it is the life of slaves, slaves to a promise or an idea of mastery.
Following Nietzsche, then, we will see the bad thing about capitalism as the sense that it is bad, and we’ll attribute this sense of its being bad to a campaign to criticise it which has been waged in the West under the auspices of Christianity. We should think about his ‘eternal return’ in these terms. The point of the notion of return is to free us from the false freedom of the future. If you think there is an ‚eternal return of the same‘, you think the future can’t be any different than it has been eternally, or has eternally been going to be, and you’ll stop trying to live there rather than here. Nietzsche’s return is a way to help us escape into the present from the capitalist’s project of escape into something else, some sort of sanctuary or shelter – as if the idea was to recover the safety of never having been born. In the past, and as Christians, we accepted the life of the capitalist by failing to accept it, because – whatever we did – we failed to reject it too. It is in this sense that Christianity is the capitalist’s religion, and Nietzsche – despite his reputation – is authentically an anti-capitalist. With his guidance, we come to capitalism as if to a home from which we have long been estranged, but which we never left. What he wanted was not for us to anticipate apocalypse and live life with a view to the avoidance of others’ deaths. What he wanted was for us to forget the future: he wanted us to reinterpret the absolute life of the capitalist and Christian as the invalid product of a corrupt past, and to see the life it resists, the capitalist life, as fit for a god.
If the future is forgotten, it needn’t be renounced. But the future will remind us of itself, and we will need to forget it again – and again. We will need to repeat to ourselves the reason why it would be better not to try to live there. And if, like contemporary greens – like Naomi Klein – we are blinded by sentimentality, that will not help. Greens like Klein don’t get that they are committed to a politics of renunciation. They do not understand that, since they are committed to a politics of renunciation, they must themselves renounce. And they do not understand – or they understand too well – that any politics that says to its public, ‚You, individually, are guilty, because you have not renounced‘ will fail to acquire a constituency among them. But no more than the greens does Nietzsche have an answer. He has no cure: he is just better acquainted with what ails us. Among the moderns are many necessary diagnosticians, and Nietzsche is senior to them all. And it is not that he failed. It is that there is no cure, in time. In time, there is only therapy. There is the therapy that calls the disease a disease, and treats it by saying it is being cured. (Or, if not, there is the queasy drudgery of the Nietzschean insistence on health.) And if we affirm that the cure is some incomparable medicine – if we affirm that the cure is, for instance, love – if the cure is love, then there must be enough. Love may be the therapy, as may politics, faith, or even philosophy. But for love to be the cure, we would have to have enough, and we may doubt that we do. If what is needed is to love time, we may doubt that we do.
Note that I am no kind of nostalgist. How we rave about the novelty of modernity, though! How we prattle in praise of our own unprecedentedness, and of the speed at which the old now yields to the new! The myths we lived by have been dispelled, we say; now we make do with Google, with Wikipedia and with the odd opinionated scientist. But there is one myth we never overcame. The most manifold of all myths, it stands in crucial need of renewal. We must stop believing in a beginning. We must stop believing there was a time when we had some alternative – when we had God, for example, and God took things in hand, and it was all right. We need a new myth. We need a new myth of the capitalist. It will not be the Christian’s and it will not be Nietzsche’s. It will indeed be as false as the last one – and the one before that – but it will at least decline to credit God with any power to cure us. It will say that we have never believed, and have always known. The more faith we had, the less we believed. There was a fall, but we did not fall into knowledge. Knowledge has never been new. What we know we have always known: it was why we believed. We were powerless, then, and knew we needed to believe. There was no dispute about that: the disputes were about what lie we’d best believe. We were powerless, but now we have just enough power to suppose we needn’t be. The fall into the modern was more like a slip, a stumble. We tripped up on our own good luck; we were thrown into power. And the thing is that, when we were powerless, we were right. We did need to believe. We did need to believe in a full and final balancing of the books. We needed to believe, too, in a lawlessness above the law – a lawlessness that lives, and tells us what the law is, and changes its mind about it, or might – and not in a law that lives no life, a law that is interstellar and immune, and speaks axiomatically and algebraically – a law we can tell what to tell us, what to say, what to mean. We were better people when we had no power. Now we think we just might make it. We think we might have a chance. If everything is put into the past, and every earthly thing is consumed, used up and drunk dry, then – we think – we might win, we might overtake time by beating it into the future. Now we have fallen into power, we can be the capitalists we were waiting for – the capitalists who consume their way out of capitalism, killing it and outliving even themselves. When we had no power, we chose belief. Now we’ve touched power, it is power we choose, and insofar as it is power we choose, it is unhappiness and unbelief we choose, also. We should not, in my myth, blame our unbelief on time, as if it belief itself had been disqualified by it. We should blame it on our geochemical or geological luck, on our having lucked into a certain kind of power: we call it energy, and we get it from fuel. In my myth, this pratfall into power – and this choice to commit to it, and commit ourselves to it, and make ourselves its creatures – this is why we do not know we can believe that today there rises a sun ‚like the slow, grateful smile, on an incandescent altar, of some divine benevolence, well-pleased and absolute and blindingly aflame and beautiful’ – or believe that that sun rises today, on this ‚uneventless / so untimeless day‘.
* (Here there was going to be a footnote about art and aesthetics. But it ran long – very long – and now it’ll be turning up on the vaulted fool at some point later in the month.)
** The green’s debt gives her something to submit to. It’s almost as if, in her eagerness to see the back of capital, she inadvertently establishes a new God. Rather than a God of love, hers is a murderous deity to which tribute must be paid and to which we are collectively compelled to submit. But the point of it is the promise. The point of debt is the promise of paying it off. And it’s a sort of blasphemy to say, as I do, that it cannot be discharged – a blasphemy the capitalist calls ‚despair‘. (But maybe it’s too strong to say the debt can’t be discharged. Maybe I only want to say that, if the debt was discharged, the green wouldn’t be happy, and she’d get into debt again.) The green needs debt because she’s known for a long while about the apocalypse. She is first and foremost a capitalist: for longer than she can remember she’s known about the only apocalypse there is, the apocalypse happening in the present, where her life has long been vanishing too quickly to be completely lived. Her debt gives her something to do about that. Her debt is something to be done about it. It displaces the freedom she has in the present – and fears in the present – to a future day when she’ll be able to be free even of fear. It affords her the promise of a day after. But the green gives up too much for all that. What the green gives up is something like Eliot’s ‚bewildering‘ minute. The green gives up the bewilderment of the time at hand; she gives up its dark-backward and dizzying clarity. And it isn’t just her: any amount of splendid human material is squandered for the sake of a future day the point of which is not to dawn.
This is the first of two notes on time. The second is ‚On not wanting to know the time‘.