As with many concepts, there is a tendency to depict capitalism as a space. Not just as a two dimensional graphic projection of rises and falls, peaks and valleys, to represent the quantitative calculations of its overall value, but as a terrain on which we live. It is a concept so fundamental to our society, that we rely upon it the way we do the earth. We climb its plateaus, we fall in its ravines, we build upon its bedrock, and we forage in its undergrowth.
But perhaps the most important element to this spatial analogy is its inescapable quality. Space is something that we cannot excise ourselves from. We might burrow beneath the earth, or climb above it, but no matter how many times we circumnavigate the globe, we are still firmly on it. And this is the essence of the capitalism metaphor. We feel that capitalism is earth-like, all encompassing. We have lived upon its strata so long that to leave is impossible. We might move from one side to the other, or change its form as wantonly as we mine the planet. But we can’t leave. No matter how strongly we wish to alter the structure of capitalism, this is a project that must be taken on from “inside” its boundaries, because descriptions of escape are just that, “escapist,” a fantasy of a capitalist space that can be somehow overcome.
I tend to agree in principle, though perhaps not in metaphor. The lack of alternative is a matter of the control of resources—it is not that capitalism is so implicit with human society as to be synonymous with nature, it is that capitalism has already interpolated the world’s resources to such an extent that our human nature is indeed one of these conquered systems. Resource extraction occurs on the land, in the sea, in our culture, and in our psychologies. A system with so much control is indeed hard to break open, because the lines of escape are taxed and privileged.
But the reality of space is not a system of pure dimensions. Capitalism is not a box, a prism, or any other geometric solid. When we talk about going outside capitalism, we are not talking about exceeding particular planes, Cartesian limits, or violating the bounds of a particular series. We are talking about resources—what would it take for us to acquire the resources necessary for survival without interacting with regimes of value extraction? Is such a thing possible? Whether it is or not, the answer is not a mathematical question. It is not a logical, true/false position. Survival outside of capitalism is a much more nebulous concept than the spatial metaphor implies.
And this is why I have come to think about capitalism not in terms of space, but in terms of “outer space.” Removing one’s existence from capitalism is extraordinarily difficult, but like any astronaut could tell you, even the hurdles of our planet’s gravity is not an impossible blockage. Once, we thought that exceeding the earth’s atmosphere would bring instant death. But this is not true. True, it takes billions of dollars of infrastructure on the ground, the best technology the world has to offer, and in terms of fuel economy, is almost baroque in its wastefulness. And the question remains, is an astronaut really in outer space? Not quite. They are flying in an aluminum and lead shell, pumped full of canned atmosphere. They are traveling in a tiny capsule of earth, which we have accelerated into orbit. And the longer they remain there the unhealthier they become, as their muscles atrophy, they are exposed to radiation, and their minds undergo intense stress.
But no one would doubt the achievements of astronauts. Even without repeating the NASA narratives of exploration, new technologies, invaluable research, and historical dreams, we have done something amazing in figuring out exactly what resources a human needs to survive, and building them a small, expensive recreation of that ecosystem, and pushing it out beyond the bounds of all life on this planet. We are testing not only the limits of our technology, but the limits of our existence as a species.
Communists once explained their space program in terms of bringing their utopian project to the heavens, even if the more realistic explanation was a intercontinental ballistic pissing contest with a rival world power. And yet, there is something slightly utopian to space travel, on a much simpler level than Mars colonies and Starfleets. It is an attempt to push the evolution of our natural systems, using the harshest boundary we have to push against. I’m reminded of the cyborg futurism of Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, who considered not simply surrounding humans in our technology to send them to space, but of altering the human system itself:
The task of adapting man’s body to an environment he may choose will be made easier by increased knowledge of homeostatic functioning, the cybernetic aspects of which are just beginning to be understood and investigated. In the past, evolution brought about the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments. Starting as of now, it will be possible to achieve this to some degree without alteration of heredity by suitable bio-chemical, physiological, and electronic modifications of man’s existing modus vivendi.
This modus vivendi, whether in the sense of compromise or in the sense of a new way of living, is the key to “escaping” capitalism. We need not dampen our critique of capitalism, or even throw out our spatial metaphors. But we must stop thinking of the current state of power regimes as a limit. We have never sought to leave the world, but merely to leave behind a way of living in the world. The anti-capitalist cyborgs of the present and the future will no doubt exchange certain resources with the capitalist world it escapes, as its blood pumps between one and the other. Like multi-stage rockets, their revolution will be expensive, and encounter planetary resistance. But it is the dissolution of the boundary between our current ecosystem and that-which-is-not that is the real escape. By taking the first steps of provisionally living outside of capitalism, this cyborg paves the way of modification. Where once we waited for species-wide evolution, now we start by hacking our bodies.