Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism

The renewed popular interest in post-apocalyptic films demonstrates an awareness of the possibility of civilization collapse, heightened by announcements about environmental devastation and financial crisis. George Miller’s recent return to his Mad Max film franchise, decades after the original trilogy, is paradigmatic of the contemporary post-apocalyptic consciousness: whereas the original Mad Max films were driven […]

The renewed popular interest in post-apocalyptic films demonstrates an awareness of the possibility of civilization collapse, heightened by announcements about environmental devastation and financial crisis. George Miller’s recent return to his Mad Max film franchise, decades after the original trilogy, is paradigmatic of the contemporary post-apocalyptic consciousness: whereas the original Mad Max films were driven by the anxiety of global nuclear devastation (i.e. Road Warrior speaks of national “tribes” that destroyed the world with their mighty weapons), Mad Max: Fury Road is influenced by the more relevant fear of ecocide. The fact that such ecocide is already happening at the global peripheries—the neo-colonial spaces in which the people of oppressed nations are expected to deal with the ravages of the most powerful capitalist countries—provides Fury Road with a visceral pertinence. Reactionary warrior tribes control the remaining resources, even the last remaining plant life and water sources, whereas resistant communities are exiled to the wasteland, preserving the seeds of a ravaged ecosystem.

In this context, Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism is a prescient masterpiece of social theory and political economy/ecology that, despite being published in 2012, is still in search of an audience. Such an audience, I would suggest, should be those leftists, particularly Marxists, who have been so excited by Fury Road that they spend a lot of time discussing its progressive political dimensions (the collectivism, the environmentalism, the feminism) on social networking sites. If Fury Road possessed a parallel Marxist theory it would be The Entropy of Capitalism1

“The [capitalist] system is for the first time facing extremely serious feedback from its ecological depletion… If capitalism is truly adaptive might it adapt to this reality? […] Actually there are two ways that this can be imagined. One is a triumphant green capitalism which continues gloriously accumulating, the second a ‘cold’ imperialism which viciously rules, Mad Max-style, a post-apocalyptic shrunken landscape.” 2

This “Mad Max-style” tendency is what Biel calls “exterminism”—a tendency promoted by some elements of the ruling class (i.e. such as the most recent Bush regime) where the anti-human logic of capitalism is fully embraced, its contradictions accelerated—that will always be part of the mode of production, and in fact produces “path dependencies” that, once implemented, are difficult for less laissez-faire capitalist ruling cliques to overcome. But even the possible greening of capitalism, promoted by the Al Gores of the ruling class, “would only postpone, rather than hasten, a serious green restructuring in the interests of humanity and of the ecosystem. In this sense, there is no human or ecological interest in prolonging the capitalist mode of production.” 3

What The Entropy of Capitalism is really about, then, is the objective limits of capitalism and the necessity these limits demand: socialism. While it is the case that the left has long understood Rosa Luxemburg’s maxim socialism or barbarism, Biel makes this antinomy extremely clear. He does so by using the categories of thermodynamics to examine capitalism as a total system, thus demonstrating that the core logic Marx unveiled in Capital was ahead of its time: Marx’s laws of capitalist accumulation and reproduction are rearticulated and expanded through the lens of thermodynamics. If capitalism is a system that, like any other system, requires energy to function, then a thermodynamic investigation makes sense. Examining capitalism according to this model allows Biel to connect human interaction with the ecosystem, the monetary economy with the energy economy, and articulate the dynamics of class struggle according to the dynamics of a thermodynamic system.

A closed system (such as capitalism), that represses the creative impulses of the oppressed and resistant masses, will necessarily generate entropy. But such a closed system, commanded by a ruling class that desires the perpetuation of its hegemony, does attempt to embrace adaptation so as to push its entropic limits as far as possible into the future world of the Mad Max scenario. In order to do so, it parasites upon the very resistant movements it tries to contain, attempting to learn from them, and thus buy itself more time, while co-opting and thus limiting their possibilities. History is made by class struggle, specifically by the exploited classes struggling against their exploiters, and we have now reached the point where some factions of the exploiters have realized that, due to their parasitical position, they cannot generate any useful information: “[t]he system’s recent development thus suggests the evolution of what may be called a consolidated decayed form.” 4 Hence the need for this moribund system, caught between the tendencies of a pseudo-humane capitalism and an exterminist capitalism, to co-opt and parasite upon the ideas generated by anti-systemic class struggle.

But the real beauty of Biel’s use of thermodynamics to explain capitalism as an integrated energy system is that it does precisely what post-modern critics of Marxism have been complaining about for decades: it is a totalizing approach—ironic because it even uses the work of some post-modernish thinkers (Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben) within its Fury Road Marxist framework. The Entropy of Capitalism is not simply a book about the ecological ravages of capitalism, it is also about everything that is represented by the “consolidated decayed” period of capitalism: financial crisis, contemporary imperialism, securitization. And in all of these aspects it provides a more concrete basis for understanding the problem of capitalism and its limits than other books—Marxist, quasi-Marxist, or otherwise—that attempt to explain the same problematics.

Take, for example, some of the more popular analyses of the recent financial crisis: Mauricio Lazzarrato’s The Making of the Indebted Man and Governing by Debt; Christian Marazzi’s The Violence of Financial Capitalism. These books have been trumpeted as the best analyses of the current capitalist crisis, particularly since they claim to produce an understanding of capitalism that oversteps the traditional Marxist capital-labour contradiction. And yet they are reliant on the assumption that finance capital has reached a level of virtuality, dematerialization, and “fictitious capital” that remove the mediation of the commodity so that capitalism is purely and only M-M rather than M-C-M. Biel, however, insists on the concrete. In response to this supposed “dematerialization” of capitalism he is quick to demonstrate, through actual empirical reflection of the conjuncture (something that Lazzarrato and Marazzi cannot truly perform), that “[w]hen technology appears to dematerialise production by reducing resource use, purification processes are rarely accounted; the notion of a ‘secondary materialisation’ can therefore be proposed… The fundamental entropy may merely be obscured by the fact that finance capital typically mediates its relationships through a long ‘chain’ where risks are hedged.” 5 Meaning that the very circuits that allow for financial capital—the much vaunted fictionalization, speculation, dematerialization—are themselves reliant on the growth of industrial capital in the global peripheries, a growth that Lazzarrato and Marazzi ignore (they argue that industrial capital is no longer relevant) since even the basis of economic speculation (i.e. silicon, super-conductors) actually means a greater refining process, not to mention a mining industry, than has been witnessed to date. And such refining and mining processes are also part of ecological entropy.

Biel applies a similar logic to imperialism and securitization, examining how capitalism attempts to renew itself and push its entropy into the future, by sinking its devastation into the ecosystems of the global periphery while, at the same time, containing revolt through increased surveillance and coercion. In order to sustain itself, capitalism must search for renewed “accumulation regimes” but it is always chasing these regimes towards a zero-sum game. Although it might find them in the creative interventions of resistant “commons regimes,” it must transform this creativity into capitalist accumulation through external imperialist and internal security structures, sometimes running the risk of challenging the basis of its own existence. More significantly, the system as a whole tends to “sink” its contradictions in the ecosystems of the periphery, forcing the oppressed masses to experience the most heinous ravages of capitalism—here again an imperialist exterminism becomes significant. In this context it is worth recognizing that Biel possesses a long history of examining the system’s eurocentric imperialism: his first book was a subterranean, anti-revisionist Marxist classic—Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement—which has now been properly published as a second edition by Kersplebedeb.

The only weak points of The Entropy of Capitalism lie in its solution to the crisis limits of capitalism it has described: while it recognizes the importance of resistance it seems to describe this resistance according to movementist categories. Perhaps a decade and a half behind in this regard, it imagines that a certain understanding of Mexico’s Zapatista movement was more historical than it actually was; in its desire to connect new anti-imperialist, feminist, and ecological movements it runs the risk, without actually claiming this risk, of rejecting the concept of a revolutionary party. While it does not openly reject this concept, it often implies that a “rhizomatic” substitution is necessary.

Even still, Biel’s overall concerns, and the way he conceptualizes these concerns, are important for the left as a whole. There is a moment in Fury Road where one of the subaltern women asks a deluded a male subject “who killed the world?” before this subject is cast from the fleeing chaos machine and into the wasteland of capitalist-caused armageddon. Biel’s book answers this question: if the world is murdered, and turned into a “Mad Max-style” wasteland, it will be because capitalism has reached its ultimate, entropic limits. Who killed this world? Capitalism as an integrated, murderous system.

J. Moufawad-Paul
  • 1. Although, to be fair, because of the necessity of academic thoroughness, and the fact that this book is not fiction, it is not the reading equivalent of a two hour car chase. Even still, for a heavy book, it does read at a stunning and exciting pace.
  • 2. Robert Biel, The Entropy of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 65.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid., 150.
  • 5. Ibid., 71-72.