A burning car during clashes between police and protesters in Paris, France. November 24, 2018. Photo: Felipe Paiva / Shutterstock.com

Capitalism is taking its revenge. When is it our turn?

  • May 20, 2020

Capitalism & Crisis

What if we were to take revenge seriously? What would it tell us about the times in which we live and, more importantly, how to change them?

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the cruel violence of capitalism as people and populations already made vulnerable to ill health and premature death by regimes of class, race and gendered oppression suffer and die from the virus and its complications at horrifically elevated rates. Their lives, our lives, are being sacrificed on the altar of capitalist accumulation as bosses and governments clamber to restore an economy of chronic and precarious overwork and its opiate: unsustainable consumerism.

This is, of course, nothing new. In my new book Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts I trace the origins of capitalism’s vindictive and vengeful operations from the brutality used to sustain racial regimes of colonialism and slavery to the recent policies of neoliberal austerity.

I also trace the way revenge capitalism breeds within it a fascistic tendency towards revenge politics, a dire reality ascendent before the current pandemic with the rise of authoritarian regimes and animating policy and activism of the far right around the world.

As I wrote in a previous article for ROAR, which also appears as the book’s post-script, the pandemic and its attendant lockdown presents an opportunity to gather wisdom, courage and fortitude for the world-changing struggles to come. My hope is that this book, with its call not only to create a better future but to avenge what capitalism has done to us and the planet, might be helpful in that task.

The excerpt below, from the introduction, offers an overview of the book’s overall argument.

Revenge is inherent to capitalism

Though liberal and neoliberal philosophers have insisted that capitalist democracy is the climax of human political achievement, the culmination of centuries of human social evolution that has seen the knights of reason and the law banish the dragon of revenge to the borderlands, revenge is with us still. Indeed, a kind of vengeance is at the core of capitalism, though a revenge largely executed without any single human intending it, operating through the everyday and allegedly inevitable banalities of the economy.

On the one hand, this is the necessary vengeance of maintaining the expanding capitalist power, undertaken on the frontiers for capitalist accumulation such as colonies or on the front lines of class struggle. This violence has always been necessary for capitalist accumulation and reproduction and this violence has also always been vindictive for reasons we will explore.

On the other hand, I am more interested in the way capitalism develops, within it, structures and patterns that are themselves perhaps best described as vindictive, where a seemingly counter-productive cruelty and logic of (usually unwarranted) retribution appear to characterize the motion of the system as a whole.

My argument here is that, while there are indeed many individuals and institutions that bear much of the blame for these eventualities, they, and we all, exist in a system that sustains itself and its cruelties by seeking to transform each and every one of us into a replaceable competitive agent of its reproduction. I am arguing that, under capitalism, a system driven by contradiction and competition rather than by coherence and conspiracy, systemic revenge emerges without any single agent intending it. That’s the tragedy, curse and challenge of our moment.

Revenge capitalism generates revenge politics

Revenge capitalism, as its crises deepen and its violences become obscene, awakens revenge politics. By revenge politics here I mean primarily but not exclusively the global reactionary turn that is often misleadingly labelled as “populism.”

On the one hand, as numerous authors have made clear, as the actual systemic sources of misery, precariousness, alienation and fear are obscured, those who experience these terrors are all too easily turned by unscrupulous political agents towards convenient hatreds, often hatreds of race sewn into the fabric of society by the histories of empire.

On the other hand, revenge politics speaks to the ascendency of a fascistic politics that has long been plotting vengeance against all those “minority” groups whose victories over the past century or more have unsettled the rule of the powerful: women, queer folk, ethnic and religious “minorities,” unions, intellectuals and artists and the like.

But on some still deeper level, and one that exceeds simply the pathologies of reactionary and far-right tendencies but also affects many approaches (allegedly) from the “left” or associated with “social justice,” revenge politics is at work as well. Here, at the proverbial “end of history,” when “capitalist realism” has all but strangled the radical imagination and our ability to manifest a compelling vision of what a better society might look like, we easily fall to a reactive kind of revenge politics. In the absence of a revolutionary vision or strategy, radical tactics can become obsessive and vindictive, narrowly targeting individuals, corporations or policies in ways that inhibit, rather than contribute to collective liberation.

The staggering reality of actually existing revenge politics today is gender-based violence, the vast majority of it perpetuated by cis-gendered men. The vast majority of this vengeance is exacted against female intimate partners or family members who the perpetrator deems to be guilty of betrayal, dishonour or disobedience.

There is also, worldwide, a huge amount of other lethal violence, vastly disproportionately enacted by men, against queer, trans or non-binary people, violence that often seeks to take revenge for failure to obey conservative norms of gender and sexuality. While patriarchy long predates capitalism, numerous thinkers have illustrated their integration. We can, for instance, observe the link between patriarchal vengeance and three angles of revenge capitalism that concern me throughout this book: unpayable debts, the surplussing of populations and what I term hyperenclosure. Veronica Gago, Silvia Ferderici and Sayak Valencia each theorize the connection between the rule of unpayable debt and the rise of gendered violence.

It is also exhaustively documented that the forms of displacement, dispossession and vulnerability experienced by the “surplussed” populations, including migrants, refugees, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and those who are ghettoized, give rise to dramatically increased gendered violence. And contrary to dreams that an interconnected world would lead to a decline in gendered violence, the globally extensive and dramatically intensive reach of an indifferent, exploitative, alienating and ultimately nihilistic form of capitalism into every aspect of life in part contributed to the growth of misogynistic reactionary political tendencies and movements that seek to restore meaning, authenticity and community through the rigid and often violent policing of gender and sexuality.

Capitalism shapes our understanding of revenge

Capitalism, like all systems of power, operates not simply through brute force (though it certainly does that) but also through reproducing a whole contradictory moral order where its violences and inequalities are normalized, and in which those who refuse or rebel are framed as beastial, stupid and doomed. It is within liberal capitalism’s dominant moral economy that we have come to even understand revenge.

It may well be an eternal human drama, but our interpretation of that drama, our notion of what revenge is, is a discursive formation shaped by the moral order of the historically unique system in which we are steeped and to whose reproduction we are compelled to contribute.

How we imagine revenge is shaped by a system of revenge. Thus capitalism appears, in its preferred cosmology, as not only the natural expression of basic and inexorable human impulses to compete, accumulate and barter, but as the triumph of order, peace and plenty. Capitalism has (in a sense) benefited from the (justified) timeless aprobium for revenge to both hide its own vengeful nature and to castigate its enemies as heinously, nihilistically vengeful.

It is common enough to hear reactionary pundits and politicians sneer at popular demands for economic redistribution and justice with accusations that they are driven by envy and vindictiveness against the hard-working rich. Throughout capitalism’s history anti-colonial and working class rebellions have been narrated by the powerful as vengeful spasms of inchoate rage from uneducated and morally deficient mobs, taken as evidence, ironically enough, that the very conditions of (vengeful) subjugation and punishment that led to the uprisings were necessary in the first place.

For this reason, in this book revenge represents, in part, the name the powerful give to the claims to justice, to settlement or to closure “from below,” from those imagined not to be entitled to them. Those who seek to step outside the moral and legal regulations of the current order to balance the scales, to call on an unpaid debt, or to come to peace with a harm, are slandered as vengeful threats to the common good, which is really simply the good of the wealthy and powerful.

Our fear of revenge, then, is not simply the patrimony of thousands of years of literature and moral thought that warns of the threat it poses. It is also something instilled in us by the system in which we live to tame the radical imagination.

What would it mean to avenge the crimes of capitalism?

For those of us who continue to survive these injustices, for those of us who can barely live in a world of such injustices, for those of us who know there are great debts of history to be repaid (for slavery, for colonialism, for the exploitation of our ancestors for the wealth of others), and for those of us who want the story to end another way, what promise does revenge hold? How might we move from volatile and unreliable revenge fantasies, which seem to increasingly define politics today, to an avenging imaginary capable of inspiring and holding together the kind of revolutionary assemblage of the exploited that is perhaps the only thing that will save our species from itself? How could avenging be a dream that moves us beyond vindictive violence and towards the horizons of cooperation and care that are the stuff of the new world we must build?

This book is not an apologia for revolutionary violence, nor is it a condemnation of it. It seems to me less and less deniable that our choice now as a species is between revolution or slow annihilation, and that any revolution against so violent a system is likely to have violent elements. Perhaps this revolution is already under way. And perhaps so too is the even more bloody counter-revolution.

Rather, this book asks the question: if we were to take revenge seriously, what would it tell us about the times in which we live and, more importantly, how to change them?


Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts is out now from Pluto Books.

Order your copy directly from the publisher with 30% discount using the code REVENGE30

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Max Haiven

Max Haiven is Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Anishinaabe Aki (Thunder Bay, Canada) where he co-directs RiVAL: The ReImagining Value Action Lab. He is working on a book about revenge.

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