Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Northwest Ontario and director of the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL). He writes articles for both academic and general audiences and is the author of the books Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons, The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity (with Alex Khasnabish) and Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life. He is currently working on a book titled Art after Money, Money after Art: Radical Creative Strategies Against Financialization. More information can be found at maxhaiven.com.
The following is an edited excerpt from Max Haiven’s Towards a Materialst Theory of Revenge: The Lives of Witches, published in August 2017 by the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL)’s VAGABONDS series of peer-reviewed working papers. For more info, visit rival.lakeheadu.ca/vagabonds.
How could a theory of revenge become truly materialist, which is to say see revenge as both the product of and at the same time necessary to the contradictory structural economics of capitalism? To use a rightfully outmoded language, how can revenge be seen as the economic base of capitalism, not only the cultural and political superstructure?
I have no comprehensive answer, but only a few clues to present.
The first comes from the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s recuperation of the notion of revanchism to describe the way:
The 1990s witnessed the emergence of what we can think of as the revanchist city … Severe economic crisis and governmental retraction were emulsified by a visceral reaction in the public discourse against the liberalism of the post-1960s period and an all-out attack on the social policy structure that emanated from the New Deal and the immediate postwar era… Revenge against minorities, the working class, women, environmental legislation, gays and lesbians, immigrants became the increasingly common denominator of public discourse.
Importantly, for Smith, revanchism named not only a vindictive political affect, but also a structural economic process.
By the 1970s, gentrification was clearly becoming an integral residential thread in a much larger urban restructuring. As many urban economies in the advanced capitalist world experienced the dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs and a parallel increase in producer services, professional employment and the expansion of so-called “FIRE” employment (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), their whole urban geography underwent a concomitant restructuring.
It is a now-familiar story: as profits dwindled in the post-war period due to the increased bargaining position of labour and higher tax rates levied in the name of public services, the appeal of speculation in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors soared. New York’s racialized, migrant, queer and working-class culture was appropriated and weaponized by capital, turned into a noxious, tourist-oriented gimmick, and a wide variety of legal and quasi-legal techniques were mobilized to accelerate a process of “urban renewal,” lately known as gentrification. Vast budgetary increases for punitive policing were justified through recourse to racialized invective that posed the “law-abiding” (read: white) citizens as victims of their own largess relative to racialized others. This legitimated urban enclosures on a massive scale, aimed at feeding a speculative real-estate bubble that still has not really burst. Lest we forget, it was from this toxic mess of smash-and-grab capitalism and white-supremacist fear and loathing that Donald Trump’s fortune and persona emerged.
So, for Smith, revanchism, in a sense, names both the spirit of reactionary urban planning and also the logic of what we can call financialized, neoliberal capital. In terms of that logic, we might say, drawing on the frames provided by Smith’s colleague David Harvey, that there emerges a new combination of the alpha and the omega of capital: accumulation by dispossession and financial speculation. In the first place, cities built — literally and figuratively, materially and culturally — by the collaborative, cooperative labours of citizens are now stripped of those citizens for the purposes of speculative accumulation; on the other, this stripping is facilitated by, and helps reproduce, finance capital. Revanchism can describe a particular character or tenor of capitalist accumulation at the zenith of an accumulation cycle, a moment that Giovanni Arrighi has identified with “late capitalism,” when, as Fredric Jameson makes clear, culture is integrated and implicated directly in the reproduction of capitalism, not merely as superstructure, but as a central element.
According to Costas Lapavitsas, financialization names the process and period when the capitalist economy encounters accelerating paroxysms of crisis as the gap grows and grows between the production of actual surplus value (represented in the formula M-C-M’) and the much more rapid growth of financial wealth (represented in the formula M-M’). David Harvey, elucidating Marx, as well as Rosa Luxembourg, illustrates that various facets of capital desperately seek to close this gap, a gap I have elsewhere insisted is at least in part a gap in the imagination itself: employers squeeze more from workers; resource-extractive corporations scour the earth for more wealth; non- or semi-capitalist communities are torn apart or thrown into the market; retailers seek to accelerate consumerism (often by expanding consumer debt); financiers seek to offload bad debts onto one another, dupes or the state; states themselves compete to see who will be made to pay.
These and renewed tendencies towards imperialism, war, authoritarianism and untold human cruelty are the structurally necessary forms of revenge wreaked by a stricken capitalism shot through with speculative adrenaline and merciless externalized contradictions.
A fuller political economy of revanchism must wait for another occasion because it is now vital to highlight how central race and racism are to the politics of revenge and the economics of revanchism. Smith is unequivocally clear that this tendency, as it was expressed in New York City and throughout the United States, both drew on and reinforced racist tropes and structures for its lifeblood. Urban revanchism was squarely aimed at racialized populations who were accused of exploiting and abusing white benevolence and ruining the city with lawlessness, laziness and barbarism. The financiers who drove this process forward were almost exclusively white, as were the politicians and judicial officials that superintended it. Thus, a new chapter of the long dark saga of the dispossession of people of colour under American capitalism was added, but this time with the victims cast as villains.
Yet this chapter echoed its predecessors. James Baldwin, among others, has pointed out that fantasies of Black vengeance have defined the stunted political imagination of White America, blossoming into an appetite for revanchist anti-Black violence whether enacted by police or lynch mobs. Angela Davis, Ruth Wlson Gilmore and Michelle Alexander have all traced the way the American system of mass incarceration — including the firearms industry, municipal police forces and white supremacist organizations — was built in the wake of Abolition, in part to assuage the paranoia of whites regarding Black vengeance. In reality, as Gilmore and Davis argue, the purpose of mass incarceration is also the continued devaluation of Black lives and Black labour necessary for the perpetuation of capitalist accumulation. Others, including David Roediger and Theodore Allen, have understood these institutions as central to the psychic and material wages of whiteness that have conscripted white proletarians to a fidelity to white capital.
For this reason, Loic Wacquant has drawn on Smith’s notion of revanchism to frame what he calls hyper-incarceration, preferring the term for pinpointing that system’s specific targeting of poor Black ghettoized men and for naming of a system also encompasses policing, courts, parole, and bonds, all of which, he argues, have been absolutely central to the financialized, neoliberal movement of capitalist accumulation in the post-Civil Rights era. For Wacquant, we might say, revanchism names a political affect and an economic structure: on the one hand, it animates the racist antipathy that justifies the ruinous expansion of what he calls the penal state, the self-destructive form of extreme neoliberalism that answers the crisis of care and social welfare it itself has created by spending more and more on prisons; on the other, revanchism names precisely this seemingly irrational, punitive and ultimately self-destructive urge within the logic of capitalist accumulation.
The prison here is the dark crypt of white-supremacist capitalism. Not only is it a means of encrypting speculative capital in the carceral institution, but as the prison becomes a (perhaps the) central institution of racial capitalism, it also encrypts, at the centre of that system, a zone of endless revenge. In prisons, absent the heroic solidarity of inmates, we are led to imagine that the monetary or moral economy is replaced by an economy of revenge, wherein one’s status and ability to avoid premature death as a captive becomes dependent on one’s ability to threaten vengeance against potential abusers (guards and other inmates). The hyper-exploitation of the image of the prison and prisoner in popular culture relies precisely on providing a racialized spectacle of vengeance that mirrors, in extreme form, the secret broader economy of revenge capitalism that imprisons us all. These dungeons of endless, racialized, financialized vengeance, which obviously have nothing to do with public safety or rehabilitation, are the sacrificial altars of revenge capitalism and they burn bright in the public imagination, to some as warnings, to some as beacons.
The Cultural Illogic of Belated Capitalism
And now vengeance has come calling with the absolute and systematic destruction of seemingly any and all social welfare provisions of the nation-state, with near-complete deregulation of capital, except for those regulations that serve the purposes of a radical economic nationalism, and punish and avenge themselves against already oppressed people: the explosion of private prisons; the paramilitarization of policing against Black and racialized communities; mass deportations; attacks on reproductive rights; the list goes on and on.
Yet, let us not lose sight of the structural dimensions here. Naomi Klein, for one, has noted that the Trump administration’s corporate backers (and now much of the executive branch) rightly feared the growing global discontent that followed the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the growing climate justice movement. While we should not downplay the deep and rancorous splits between capitalist actors today Yanis Varoufakis and others note an emerging alliance between global ultranationalists, and a growing tolerance for their ideas by capitalists who, in spite of perhaps preferring the older globalist neoliberalism (and its more palatable, debonair Davos political class), aim to turn the situation to their advantage. Other capitalists, notably those associated with Silicon Valley, see Trump and his ilk as dark angels of disruptive innovation, willing to let the boys have their fun with artificial intelligence, cybernetics, automation and geoengineering without any meaningful public oversight.
These are all the contradictions of capital come to a head. Without parsing them too deeply, I would offer the formulation that, at a certain climax in the accumulation cycle, capitalism’s inherent vengefulness emerges naked and, as ever, in Marx’s words “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Capitalism’s vengefulness is not merely an anthropomorphic metaphor. Capitalism’s whole history has been a saga of vindictive acts perpetrated against those on whom it depends for its lifeblood: workers and the oppressed. It has constantly and persistently awakened and harnessed the revanchist dreams and fantasies of the oppressed and exploited to turn them against one another. And it has constantly defamed notions of proletarian and anti-colonial vengeance as subhuman, animalistic and degraded as a means to silence and quell righteous fury.
Yet now, at a moment of its own massive, unassuageable crisis, not only does capital turn to revenge politics to save itself, it also reveals its true vengeful nature. It is not only on a metaphorical level that this undead thing, capital — this horrific manifestation of dead-labour that is ontologically dependent on the vitality of its adversary, living-labour — is driven by a Nietzschean ressentiment. It is also that late, financialized capitalism is so desperate to sustain itself through its manifold and fatal contradictions that it turns to the worst forms of vindictive cruelty to support itself in its madness. Hyper-incarceration, gentrification, the debt crisis, the ecological crises: all of these are forms of capitalist vengeance that are, in fact, cancerous to and unsustainable within capital itself. Yet, they accelerate, thanks to the inherent momentum of the system, driven as it is by no single rational conductor or conspiracy, but by a million individual acts of frantic capitalist competition. As ever, the only way for capitalism to save itself from itself in situations such as these, as Rosa Luxembourg taught us, is to entrust itself to the care of authoritarianism or the cleansing fires of inter-imperialist warfare.
I am tempted to call revenge the cultural illogic of belated capitalism, echoing Fredric Jameson’s famous essay on postmodernism. Illogic because the politics and economics of revenge emerge from a moment when the accelerating spiral of accumulation is so vertiginously fast that we can no longer ascribe it any sort of sustainable logic. Belated because “late” seems overly optimistic: we appear to be in an endless twilight now. The contradictions pile atop of themselves, the “fixes” (as David Harvey describes them) create new, greater crises. Perhaps this is always what capital looks like at the end or “late” phase of the accumulation cycle, as Giovanni Arrighi theorized it. It is certainly how capitalism has always appeared from below, from the perspective of Indigenous people, racialized people and the poor. But, in magnitude if not in structure, the crises and disastrous “fixes” we witness today seem beyond anything we’ve seen before: the cascading ecological and climate crisis; the sublimely horrific, churning necropolitics of populations made into surplus; the further weaponization of money into a proliferation of unpayable debts… these and other monumental systemic injustices seem to have no point — they at times even defy the logic of individual capitalists or the capitalist system as a whole.
Fanon of the Whites?
For this reason, right-wing (though anti-Trump) New York Times commentator David Brooks might well have accidentally stumbled onto something worthwhile when he posited in a recent column that “Steve Bannon is the Franz Fanon of the Whites.” Such a statement goes well beyond Brooks’ lacklustre intent, which is to trod the well-worn ground of castigating campus intersectionalist privilege politics and bemoan a culture of exploitative victimhood. Offering Bannon as the Fanon of Whites might suggest that he is their theorist of revenge. Or, more accurately, Bannon wishes to be the Fanon of whiteness.
Fanon, famously, provided a philosophical, moral and political rationale for anti-colonial revolt, and for violence as a means to achieve national liberation. This is all within a context, of course, where colonial regimes’ claims to legitimacy were often based on their “benevolent” gift of the so-called “rule of law” to Indigenous and colonized populations, which allegedly replaced what colonists imagined and instructed was a prehistory of endless, limitless vengeance. Not only did such an assumption erase the complex legal, juridical and diplomatic structures that predated their arrival, it also disguised and normalized the inherent, structural and extremely brutal vengefulness and impunity of individual colonists and colonial systems as a whole.
These colonial notions still operate, even in allegedly post-colonial times, in, for instance, the way the mythscape of endless, limitless, atavistic vengeance is woven around the image of the racialized gang in the (highly profitable) American media. Another example is the fantasy of the “failed state,” where, in absence of Western institutions, racialized populations regress into an economy of limitless and self-perpetuating vengeance. Such myths serve to disguise and normalize the inherent, structural and extremely brutal vengefulness of the police or neo-colonial systems as a whole. In a sense, colonialism was and is always-already the revenge of whiteness for a crime or infraction never committed but endlessly fantasized about. In this sense, Bannon has almost nothing to do with Fanon and far more in common with a long and bloody tradition of the powerful wreaking a terrible, warrantless vengeance on the oppressed, which I explore in greater detail elsewhere.
Fanon, for reasons similar to Marx and Engels, is distrustful of revenge. He offers the following: “Racialism and hatred and resentment — a ‘legitimate desire for revenge’ — cannot sustain a war of liberation… hatred alone cannot draw up a program.” Revenge here is legitimate, but not strategic — it is not morally wrong but rather insufficient to generate a sustainable movement of liberation. For Fanon, revenge is generally presented as a base, reactionary emotion that motivates understandable but ultimately unstrategic actions. For instance, he speaks about the almost spiritual dimension of public anti-colonial violence, or about the sense of revenge germane to sexual fantasies of race. But these alone cannot sustain a movement, and indeed imperil it.
On another level, Fanon’s whole oeuvre is a theory of revenge in the more systemic and structural fashion at which I have been aiming. Just as Marx wrote Capital to put a weapon of righteous, patient and slow vengeance in the hands of proletarians, so too is Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth a guide to how to take revenge on a system of colonialism that has been built around racist, colonial revanchism and, as such, built to withstand and indeed incorporate small and petty individual acts of revenge.
Glen Coulthard, for one, has revisited both Fanon and Marx for clues as to how to think about Indigenous resistance and resurgence in North America in a moment when, on the one hand, settler colonies like Canada, the US and Australia encourage a politics of reconciliation and, on the other, the conditions of genocidal colonial usurpation persist for Indigenous people, in deadly forms. For Coulthard, like many anti-colonial thinkers before him, Fanon holds the seeds for a refusal of recognition, the power to collectively reject inclusion within a system of slow death and subjugation. At stake for Coulthard is not simply a revenge fantasy but a broader notion of revenge that is also an autonomous Indigenous resurgence.
Here we may be coming closer to a notion of vengeance worthy of our dreams, one that would surpass the castigation of revenge as a brutish, reactionary emotion that we inherit from Francis Bacon and a long line of ruling-class, white philosophers, whose secret work, we have seen, has been to hide the logic of vengeance at the very heart of the system that has privileged them.
The more radical, generative and strategic revenge I have in mind, along with Marx and Engels, Fanon and Coulthard — a truly structural theory of revenge — might be tritely summed up in the graffitio appearing on many walls in Southern Europe since the 2010 dawn of the Eurozone debt crisis and punishing austerity regimes: “Living well is our best revenge.” Or, if you prefer, Ireland’s Bobbi Sands, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
But let me hasten to distinguish this from mere sentimentalism: to me, these phrases imply much more than a sort of solipsistic retreat into a politics of personal contentedness, where one turns the other cheek to the vengeance of capitalism or colonialism or white supremacy. Rather, it means three things: militant collective refusal, seizing the means of social production and the radical imagination.