For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
-Karl Marx, the German Ideology (1845)
Capitalism is a totalising force. That is to say, it pervades every aspect of human life. One cannot take up a new hobby without people asking how you intend to monetise it. It is almost impossible to study or practice a skill without some kind of commitment to employment in the field – HECS debt being an obvious example. Capitalism even coopts resistance: Che Guevara shirts sell by the thousands, and you can buy the Communist Manifesto in almost any bookstore in the country. This has been remarked on by both proponents and opponents of capitalism, with Margaret Thatcher proclaiming “there is no alternative”, and Mark Fisher's concept of capitalist realism, which says “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. One of the major projects of the Frankfurt School was to investigate the cultural underpinnings of this totalisation, with the hope of finding some way to use media to unshackle the subjects of capitalism from our nigh-unshakeable belief in capitalist realism. Unfortunately, it seems that the Frankfurt School did not reach this goal, but it is my hope that in this article I will be able to illustrate one small 'wedge' that might allow us to gain a bit of distance from capitalist realism and the totalisation of capital. This 'wedge' is the idea of value creation in non-capitalist formations.
This concept comes from Anna Tsing's work 'The Mushroom at the End of the World', an ethnographical-ecological-economical analysis of the matsutake mushroom, the people who pick and sell it, the forests it grows in, and so on. It's a very beautiful book with a quite unusual structure that invites the reader into an unusual state of mind. One of the recurring themes is that the pickers are essentially acting completely independent of capital. Tsing argues that the pickers have chosen this way of making a living for diverse and complex reasons, that are very rarely to do with money: she mentions an elderly woman with a severe physical disability, who walks the forests of Oregon with two walking sticks, collecting mushrooms, because she feels free. She also discusses ethnic groups like the Mien, who pick matsutake as part of a traditional lifeway, arguing that the camps of pickers recreate the lives their ancestors lived in South-East Asia.
Tsing also explores the way that buyers relate to the pickers, with a sort of collective rejection of conventional market-based purchases – instead, the buyers are engaged in a sort of community development and maintenance that just sometimes happens to involve money. Tsing argues that the importance of the matsutake is also non-capitalistic: it is almost always purchased as a gift, and used in some Japanese cultural performances of respect and seriousness, and as such, it only exists as a commodity (that is, a good intended primarily for sale) very briefly in the middle of the supply chain. The main point, however, is that while capital appropriates value from the mushroom and its pickers – that is to say, someone makes profit from the mushroom sales – the mushrooms are produced in a non-capitalist manner. The camps of pickers, their relationships with the forests and the mushrooms, are a non-capitalist formation. Capital comes along relatively late in the process and appropriates this value, something Tsing refers to as “salvage accumulation”.
While the matsutake is somewhat obscure in the West, there are an unthinkable many examples of this salvage accumulation that we take for granted AND that we think of as regular capitalist value creation. It is my hope that by identifying the way in which capital is actually salvaging value from non-capitalist formations, it will point away from capitalist realism, and towards a world where people do activities for their own sake, and not merely for their profitability. It seems possible that in fact ALL capitalist value comes from non-capitalist formations – after all, capital is merely money that valorises itself, and it seems unlikely that this process can create value without non-capitalist activity. However, this is a very ambitious argument that will not be possible to seriously engage with in this article. As such, I will stick to the smaller project of illustrating some non-capitalist formations within the belly of capital, in particular gambling and rideshare services.
There are few icons of capitalist greed more pure than the casino. Perhaps investment banks, or more cynically parliaments, but the casino is a symbol of unbridled exploitation. The ridiculous profitability of casinos leads directly to the manner in which they operate essentially independently of governments: casinos have faced very little consequences for illegally flying Chinese crime figures into the country, for illegally providing people with devices that allow them to use multiple poker machines, and more recently for violating social distancing rules. Casino owners are some of the wealthiest people in the world. It's undeniable that casinos are ultra-capitalistic institutions. But if we look a little closer, we will see that the way that they make their money is fundamentally non-capitalist.
I play poker, something people are often a little surprised by given I identify as a socialist. But gambling is not a capitalist practice. It does involve money, which seems to be the reason that people assume gambling is inherently capitalistic. But gambling has existed as long as human history: we have archaeological evidence of dice from 3000 BC, with gambling venues widespread in China by 1000BC. Judaism has a religious tradition of gambling during Hannukah, in honour of a historical practice of using dice to covertly teach Torah during a foreign occupation that banned overt practice of Judaism. All of this is to say – gambling existed long before capitalism, and will exist long after. It seems incontrovertible that children gambling for chocolate over dreidels is not capitalistic (except to the extent that the dreidels and chocolate are generally purchased commodities). The step from there to poker is small: poker is a game that involves money, not an investment that involves luck. Capitalism enters the frame when casinos appear: they take 'rake', a percentage of each hand. Unlike blackjack, players are playing against each other, not against the house. But even games against the house are only capitalist in their context, not their fundamental nature. Rake is essentially an entry fee – in the same way that watching a film is not capitalist, except you have to buy a ticket, gambling is not capitalist, except that you have to do it at a casino. Even within the most bleak and profit-hungry of capitalist institutions, the value is being created by non-capitalist activity: people playing games together.
Uber is another bleak capitalist institution. In the decade since it was founded, it has expanded to the point where it generated $14bn in revenue in 2019, every cent of which comes from their innovative unethical labour-hire practices. But the labourers themselves are not engaged in anything remotely capitalistic: they're just driving. In fact, the relationship between the customers and the drivers are specifically non-financial – the customers pay Uber, and Uber pays the driver. The drivers even sometimes give gifts to the customers – free bottles of water, mints, etc. Of course, the drivers are largely motivated for capitalist reasons: to call it “rideshare” is to buy into Uber's essentially false rhetoric that the drivers are independent contractors – they are giving people lifts because of the money they will earn. But this value, salvaged by Uber, is created by non-capitalist activity. Moving someone from point A to point B is in no way inherently capitalist any more than gambling or picking mushrooms is. It would be facile to recap the history of travel, but perhaps a more useful illustration of the non-capitalistic nature of driving would be Drive Against Depression, an organisation that uses cars and driving to help people manage their mental illness (https://www.driveagainstdepression.com.au/).
Driving, like poker and mushroom picking, can create a powerful sense of direct connection with the world. There is no financial interface between the driver and the car, the players and the deck, the pickers and the mycelium. Marx said, in the quote at the beginning of this article, that he hoped for a society where people could engage in activities for their own sake, without those activities expanding and totalising them, fusing with their identity. Of course, under capitalism, all these activities are totalising: Uber drivers aren't driving for the sake of their mental health. Gamblers are playing poker with the hope of winning money. Mushroom pickers aren't foraging for food. But in each of these cases, we can see that the fundamental activities are not capitalist. Capitalism enters from outside, appropriating the value created by these activities, and forcing 'people who are driving' to become drivers, 'people who are picking mushrooms' to become mushroom pickers. But to even acknowledge this twist is to 'wedge' open a space for an alternative.
What would it look like if people only drove because they wanted to get from A to B? What if casinos were for people to enjoy games, not to extract their money? This insight makes a promise: there IS an alternative. It might be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but by reminding ourselves that capitalism is not endless, not total, not irresistibly pervasive, we can make imagining the end of capitalism just a little easier; we can open some space in our mental landscape, and perhaps even the world at large, for hope, for things we value in themselves, for resistance.