Marx’s Theory of Alien Nation

December 10th, 2010  |  Published in Art and Literature, Social Science, Socialism  |  1 Comment

Charles Stross hits another one out of the park today. The post attempts to explain the widespread sentiment that the masses are politically powerless: “Voting doesn’t change anything — the politicians always win.” Stross advances the thesis that we have been disempowered by the rise of the corporation: first legally, when corporations were recognized as persons, and then politically, when said corporations captured the democratic process through overt and subtle forms of corruption and bribery.

Playing off the notion of corporations as “persons”, Stross portrays the corporation as a “hive organism” which does not share human priorities; corporations are “non-human entities with non-human goals”, which can “co-opt” CEOs or politicians by rewarding them financially. The punchline to the argument is that:

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

I like this argument a lot, but it seems to me that it’s less an argument about the corporation as such than an argument about capitalism. Indeed, Marx spoke about capitalism in remarkably similar terms. He notes that the underlying dynamic of capitalism is M-C-M’: the use of money to produce and circulate commodities solely for the purpose of accumulating more capital. Money itself is the agent here, not any person. This abstract relationship is more fundamental than the the relations between actual people–capitalists and workers–whose actions are dictated by the exigencies of capital accumulation. From Capital, chapter four:

The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.

According to Marx, the alien invasion hasn’t just co-opted its human agents but actually corrupted and colonized their minds, so that they come to see the needs of capital as their own needs. Thus the workers find themselvs exploited and alienated, not fundamentally by capitalists but by the alien force, capital, which uses the workers only to reproduce itself. From chapter 23:

The labourer therefore constantly produces material, objective wealth, but in the form of capital, of an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist as constantly produces labour-power, but in the form of a subjective source of wealth, separated from the objects in and by which it can alone be realised; in short he produces the labourer, but as a wage labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine quâ non of capitalist production.

This, incidentally, is why Maoists like The Matrix.

Moishe Postone makes much of this line of argument in his brilliant Time, Labor, and Social Domination. He emphasizes (p. 30) the point that:

In Marx’s analysis, social domination in capitalism does not, on its most fundamental level, consist in the domination of people by other people, but in the domination of people by abstract social structures that people themselves constitute.


the form of social domination that characterizes capitalism is not ultimately a function of private property, of the ownership by the capitalists of the surplus product and the means of production; rather, it is grounded in the value form of wealth itself, a form of social wealth that confronts living labor (the workers) as a structurally alien and dominant power.

Since the “aliens” are of our own making, the proper science fiction allegory isn’t an extraterrestrial invasion but a robot takeover, like the Matrix or Terminator movies. But close enough.

So in light of my last post, does this make Capital an early work of science fiction? Or does it make contemporary science fiction the leading edge of Marxism? Both, I’d like to think.

  • John

    Please don’t ever stop blogging.