Note: This is a more primitive text. Written on the 8th of March, this year, I can’t say I knew what I was doing (writing wasn’t something I regularly did yet). I can’t say I agree with everything written in here, but I still think there is something interesting to note when we look at its casting of dualism in relation to the ethical and the necessity of both good and evil.
The positionality from which one critiques is of utmost importance and this can not be overstated. Objectivity in analysis is sought by many, and for many (e.g., many orthodox Marxists), the lack thereof warrants outright rejection. When carrying out a critique of capitalism, one must be conscious and wary of their positionality (being caught up in abstraction), so they do not fall into the trap of bourgeois mystification and reproducing the logic of capitalism. The positionality of this critique is of a major unusumvirate: Georges Bataille. The analysis of this critique is a general analysis. Firstly, capitalism is a mode of production in which the mode of exchange is commodity exchange and because private property is the ruling law of the social, the means of production are privately owned (by the bourgeois class). Through the ethics of Georges Bataille, one can expose the immorality at the heart of capitalism. Bataille’s general (solar) economics show how capitalism does not know how to expend and even rejects expenditure. Capitalism, by excluding expenditure, rejects sovereignty which is another important part of Bataille’s summit. Capitalism rejects death by making base (by exalting life above it, and therefore making life that which is high (not base)) and in doing so, rejects the very question of ethics. Although many see capitalism as the best system by a multitude of metrics, capitalism ought to be rejected because it is an immoral system that opposes expenditure, sovereignty, and death.
‘Ought’ implies morality. Thus, one must set up a system of ethics to justify their normative (ethical) claim. Bataille’s ethics is a heterological firebomb that will be used to burn down the cathedral of capitalism. Bataille’s ethics follows a summit-decline model. For Bataille, a morality of the summit is the side of morality which is of “excess, exuberance and expenditure,” whereas a morality of the decline is the side of morality which is of that which cannot expend, that which is exhausted, and that which wants to conserve and not expend (Pawlett 120). What Bataille is implicitly putting forward is a dualism of good and evil. The summit implies a decline and vice versa. One cannot have one without the other. The reason Bataille prefers the summit to the decline is because of this dualism. The decline is of project (means to end (teleological) action). The decline is the good divorced from evil (do not confuse good without evil to be that which is the most moral). Thus, that which cannot maintain this dualism is not moral. It is not of morality because morality is a dualism. In other words, one cannot have good without evil, they define each other and necessitate each other. Therefore, a system that does not have both summit and decline cannot be moral (of morality) as good without evil means nothing, and evil without good means nothing. Capitalism is the system that personifies the decline par excellence.
Capitalism does not know how to expend. Within Bataille’s summit, there is the expenditure of excess. Therefore, a system, to be moral, must be able to expend ecstatically (it must have a summit of evil). Capitalism has the good (the decline) as it is permeated with teleological decision-making (doing things for the end of profit). Bataille sees the sun as the starting point of general economics. For Bataille, there is an excess of energy on the Earth because the sun expends its energy upon us without return — the sun’s expenditure is pure loss. Bataille is not interested in the myth of scarcity and therefore production. Bataille only sees excess and therefore only consumption (expenditure). He, in his recognition of production as illusory, makes consumption “the problem of economics, since on the level of the” general economy, energy (wealth) is “always in excess” (Land 56). One must take note that expenditure, in the way Bataille uses it, does not mean all forms of consumption. Bataille uses expenditure to designate only the unproductive forms of consumption: sovereign consumption (Bataille, Visions of Excess 118). Capitalism expends nothing. The mass waste of capitalism is not an expenditure, rather, it is just overproduction. Under capitalism, there is only rational consumption of commodities. Utility doesn’t just underline consumption but all things under capitalism. In fact, utility is the axiom (principle) of capitalist society (Baudrillard 45). It is in this way that capitalism is “the most extreme possible refusal of expenditure” (Land 56). In short, this is capitalism’s first display of its immorality: its rejection of expenditure.
Capitalism is a servile system that rejects sovereignty. We experience sovereignty in expenditure. Sovereign experience is a winding helix of contradiction (Bush 48). It is an experience of absolute self-affirmation in that the self is sovereign, it is subordinate to nothing. It is, at the same time, an experience of absolute self-negation in that the (phenomenological) self is dissolved in ecstasy, in the limit experience where experience starts to break down. In this contradictory movement, sovereignty negates itself into “NOTHING” (Bataille, The Accursed Share Volumes II & III 256). Both the self-affirming side of sovereignty and the self-negating side of sovereignty are problematic for capitalism. Looking towards the self-affirmation contained within sovereignty, one can see the sovereign subject being subordinate to nothing. It is above utility, a fear of the future, etc. It is in this way that the sovereign subject is not enslaved within the world of project, for it does not care for the future. It sovereignly consumes (expends) caring not for the future nor even for the now, but for itself, its joussiance (roughly translated from French as ‘pleasure’). This problematic for capitalism because if one does not care for the future, they do not care for their life in terms of the future and therefore have no reason to produce. Looking towards the self-negation contained within sovereignty, one can see the subject slipping away into ecstasy and dying (in the sense of la petite mort which translates from French as the little death). This is problematic for capitalism because capitalism needs subjects to produce. It is also in this way that the opposing forces of sovereignty come together to show the immorality of capitalism as both disrupt the homo faber (the subject that produces instead of consumes). In essence, this is capitalism’s second display of its immorality: its rejection of sovereignty.
Capitalism accidentally rejects ethics and in doing so creates the inability for it to be ethical. If Bataille were to cede to the most commonly found conception of ethics which says good is what we ought to pursue and evil is what we ought to reject, how would he create an ethics? The aforementioned conception of ethics is implicitly asking the question of ‘how ought one live?’. Bataille does not deal with such servility. Bataille deals with ecstasy. Bataille deals with death. Bataille changes the question of ‘how ought one live?’ to ‘how ought one die?’ (Robbins 18). Ethics that puts life over death have at their start stable selves within the world of project (servile subjects). The very question of ‘how ought one live?’ is therefore a capitalist question. The unstable ground capitalist ethics stands upon is the idea of the stable subject, an idea that is false. The subject isn’t stable. The subject breaks down in moments of ecstasy, in moments where the self dies, in sovereign moments! This is the answer to the question of ethics, which is ‘how ought one die?’. The answer is ‘one ought to die ecstatically!’. The issue is that capitalism is anything but ecstatic. In fact, capitalism is a hellish system of slavery. Subjects under capitalism are slaves to the future. This slavery to the future function cause anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Existence under capitalism is hell (some would even say it is even worse than hell). The life of subjects under capitalism can be summed up quite easily in the words of Nick Land:
One wastes away; expending health and finance in orgies of narcosis, breaking down one’s labour-power to the point of destitution, pouring one’s every thought into an abyss of consuming indifference. At the end of such a trajectory lies the final breakage of health, ruinous poverty, madness, and suicide. (Land 189)
The issue with capitalism’s ethicality is its inability to be ethical. It not only prevents ecstasy which is the answer to the question of ethics i.e. that which is ethical, but it also prevents the question of ethics, ‘how ought one die?’, from even being asked. This is the unethicality (immorality) of capitalism: life. In conclusion, only Bataille’s ethics answer the question of what is ethical because only Bataille’s ethics “go beyond the bliss of annihilation” (Robbins 21).
In conclusion, Capitalism is immoral because of its inability to expend, its preclusion of sovereignty, and its unethical exaltation of life over death. Following Bataille’s dualistic conception of morality (normative ethics) as a summit and decline, this essay has shown capitalism’s immorality and unethicality. Capitalism has an inability to expend (like the sun does) without return because its underlying logic is utility and production and in this way capitalism is not only a personification of the decline and the world of project but also the world of the profane (which is the world of production). Capitalism excludes sovereignty, as it requires stable subjects to work, and in doing so excludes the summit a second time. Capitalism has an inability to answer the question of ethics because it prioritizes life over death and it also, in this prioritization, rejects the question of ethics altogether. But what can one do? One need not do traditional forms of resistance to capitalism: join a union, the CPUSA, or vote for a certain politician (though one can partake in the great form of social expenditure known as revolution). Instead of these traditional modes of resistance, one can live morally and ethically. One can expend! One can realize their sovereignty! One can let themself slip away, begin to dissolve in ecstasy, and die (in the sense of la petite mort)! In totality, all one must do is truly live.
(Word Count: 1819)
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Volumes II & III. Translated by Robert Hurley, Zone Books, 1992.
Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939. Edited by Allan Stoekl, University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Baudrillard, Jean. When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy. Translated by Stuart Kendall, Scapegoat, 1976.
Bush, Stephen S.. Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion. Edited by Jeremy Biles and Kent L. Brintnall, Fordham University Press, 2015, pp. 38–50.
Land, Nick. The thirst for annihilation: Georges Bataille and virulent nihilism: an essay in atheistic religion. Routledge, 1992.
Pawlett, William. Georges Bataille: The Sacred and Society. Routledge, 2016.
Robbins, Carlon. GEORGES BATAILLE AND THE MASOCHIST ETHICS OF (THE LOVE OF) ANGUISH. UNC Charlotte, 2012. Academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/1604430/GEORGES_BATAILLE_AND_THE_MASOCHISTIC_ETHICS_OF_THE_LOVE_OF_ANGUISH.