1492-2022 The Rise and Fall of the Capitalocene
Year 2022 is year 3 of Sars CoV 2, and year 270 of Climate change dating from 1750. But the year we should be paying attention to is year 530 of the Capitalocene, dating from 1492, the most critical juncture in human history, so far.
Before Columbus found his ‘new world’ the world was unglobalised. Asia was a continent in itself from Beijing to Babylon. China never bothered to go beyond trading links to Africa. The Ottomans never penetrated the heart of Europe. Europe itself was a relatively barren peninsular on the periphery of West Asia that forced the Viking raiding parties into the ‘new world’ without the means to establish lasting colonies.
So the Capitalocene marks the onset of European society colonising the world and nature to launch global capitalism. Colonisation transformed Europe into the capitalist engine room sucking in masses of value from the ‘new world’ to create its rich hordes.
Why was the Capitalocene so significant? Pre-capitalist societies went from communes to empires, and sometimes back again, as if in a closed circuit. For the first 200,000 years, humans lived in what are best described as communes, organised horizontally as egalitarian societies around the mother’s lineage. Survival depended on a society run on collective lines, and a division of labour between the sexes where “mothers ruled”.
Historical variations in these relations were exceptions that proved the ‘rule’. Some lineage societies on the margins remained relatively unchanged (eg Polynesia). For most, they represent points in the transition from lineage society to class empires, which may have lasted 40,000 years, where men’s development of herding and warfare allowed the gradual formation of a male ruling class accumulating wealth as tribute.
These latter societies were characterised by the vertical uptake of tribute from producers to the ruling classes which built city states and paid tax collectors, the military and religious castes to maintain their rule. They were also unstable since there were limits to the extraction of tribute set by nature and by internal rebellions or foreign wars. Most collapsed or were defeated in war when they could no longer pay the costs of top heavy militarised state.
That is why, when the Europeans first colonised the world, they found both communes and class empires at various points of development or collapse in this closed cycle. Europe itself was a mixing pot of factional feudal states left over from the demise of the city states of Rome and Athens. Its need to break out of poverty and debt encouraged the formation of free port cities harbouring the new middle class of traders, the bourgeoisie, and merchant adventurers sponsored by the indebted feudal class to colonise the ‘new world’ as sources of new wealth.
What the European colonisers found in Asia, Africa and the Americas, was a treasure trove of natural and existing wealth, gold, silver and many other commodities, a crystalisation of centuries of past and future unfree labour, including slave labour. But instead of the new wealth being blown on conspicuous consumption by the aristocracy, most of it was circulated as currency financing the growth of capitalist production in the cities and on the land.
That is why 1492 marks the onset of the Capitalocene – the globalising grab of natures resources including labour power which created the conditions for developed industrial capitalist production from 1750. Those conditions were the exploitation of the surplus labour power of landless workers by the owners of the means of production, for profit in the European states and in the colonies.
In year 530 of the Capitalocene, what are our prospects in 2022? Are we not overdue, in year 3 of Sars CoV 2, and year 372 of climate catastrophe, for a year zero for the return to the Commune? Not a time travel back 40,000 years but a Galilean time travel into the future of the Commune.
Kim Stanley Robinson in Galileo’s Dream used his dreams of time travel to the moons of Jupiter as a device for peer reviewing his revolutionary science as he faced the inquisition of Rome for rejecting the dogma of the Sun’s movement around the Earth.
Yet we face an equally fateful social inquisition against Karl Marx today. Anti-science post-modern movements suppress the most elementary scientific knowledge of humanities’ course around the sun as inhabitants of Earth. We can use time travel based on today’s science to show the predicted outcome of both our specie’s extinction, and its survival and regeneration.
So let’s make 2022 year Zero for the return of the commune on Earth, and the beginning of the end of 15,000 years of class society destroying nature’s equilibrium. The new commune is embryonic within dying capitalism in the form of the scientific knowledge that leads us to the overthrow of the Capitalocene and creates the conditions for the return of society to nature.