Image: Boys in Bristol Photography, 2023, Unsplash License

Why We Lay Waste

Teresa Brennan’s theories used religion and psychoanalysis to explain affect, ecology, and economics

There is a concept that is notably absent from contemporary responses to an impending ecological collapse – the concept of evil. At especially heightened moments in history, people have commonly reflected on human evil to understand what perverse motives could have led to the mess they inherited. Faced with imperial decline, the Neoplatonists during the later years of the Roman Empire argued that evil has no substance – it happens when someone seeks the good in a misguided way, or places a lesser good above a higher good. We can imagine a similar line of reasoning in our present age of late capitalism, attended as it is by severe environmental degradation.

Suppose that nature is good. Then imagine an entire economic system that strives to imitate a natural system – in fact, to surpass it. It is reasonable to want to imitate natural goodness. But it is evil to destroy the source of that good in the process  – and that’s what our current system of production and distribution does. Capitalism is a system that enlists the basic desires of human beings in complete contravention of the higher good which is our collective home and origin – the natural world. For ecologically minded economists, life and energy are properties of the natural world, while death and destruction are what’s left behind when we attempt to usurp its creativity in the process of producing commodities.

A commodity is a dead thing that pretends to be better than a living one – capital is a dead mass that pretends to be as productive as a living mother.1See below for the (psychoanalytic) relation between capitalistic production and maternal creativity in Brennan’s thinking. There is an intimate connection between our economic system, social wellbeing, and the natural environment. An uninterrupted chain of accumulation proceeds from property to capital to rent, from credit to interest to growth, from raw material to commodity to cash. At each stage, inputs are extracted from nature, whether in the form of resources or energy – and waste is expelled in return.

These ideas are integral to the thought of Teresa Brennan, an Australian feminist and psychoanalytic philosopher, who turned her attention to political economy before her untimely death in 2003. She theorized that environmental degradation was not an accidental byproduct of capitalism but a necessary component of its logic. While feminist psychoanalysis is an unusual place from which to make ecological and economic claims, Brennan’s ambitious interdisciplinary project helps us draw the links between aspects of the current global crisis that are too often segregated from one another. 

By all accounts, Teresa Brennan was a strange duck. Educated at the University of Melbourne and Cambridge, Brennan spent most of her career in the United States, teaching at The New School, Brandeis, and Harvard before being appointed Schmidt Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Florida Atlantic University. She was known to clash with the established authorities, but she was adored by her friends.2See the personal reminiscences in Living Attention; On Teresa Brennan, ed. Alice Jardine, Shannon Lundeen, Kelly Oliver. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007). At FAU, she pioneered a PhD program in “engaged humanities” aimed not only at producing future academics but also journalists, curators, activists, and others involved in the work of shaping public space. She was a practicing Catholic, an activist feminist, and an iconoclast who attempted to produce a “total” theory at a time when the English-speaking academic world saw creating grand narratives as arrogant, if not heretical. 

Wide-ranging and somewhat disparate, Brennan’s work is anchored in her continual return to the untapped explanatory power of psychoanalytic theory to shed light on the experiences of women, as well as patterns of environmental destruction, consumption, and globalization. Brennan’s earliest books explored the role of women in Freud and Lacan, but with a focus on the social and historical aspects of their thought. Her third book, Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy (2000), took up threads buried in her earlier texts, linking psychoanalytic concepts to the dynamics of the capitalist economy in dense and elliptical prose. Brennan’s next major work, Globalization and its Terrors, extended her political economy and fleshed out the ideas in Exhausting Modernity using more concrete case studies. It was to further elucidate some of the concepts proposed in these texts that Brennan undertook to write what became her final book, The Transmission of Affect.

While working on the manuscript, Brennan was killed in a hit-and-run at the age of 51. The book, published posthumously in 2004, is today her most familiar work, considered foundational to the strand of scholarship known as “affect theory.” In it, she took a step back from the global scale of her previous two books to explore the transmission of emotional pressures among people, and the way in which social formations possess emergent properties that blur the boundaries between individuals.

Replacing Time With Space

Brennan’s central proposal is the implementation of what she calls the prime directive, elaborated in Globalization and Its Terrors as follows: “we shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished.”3Globalization and its Terrors (London: Routledge, 2003), 164. With this seemingly simple principle, we could, theoretically, create an in-built braking mechanism on the march of capital, which would ensure that natural biophysical processes held priority in all our undertakings. 

Now, actually implementing it would require a Herculean feat of mathematical modeling to factor in the many layers of complexity and feedback that dictate the rate of renewal for any given resource on an ongoing basis. As for how the results of these calculations would be factored into price, and by whom, Brennan leaves the door open. Nevertheless, we can assume, for example, that oil would only be appropriate in the rarest of circumstances, while solar or wind energy would become more viable for general use. In a sense, the prime directive encapsulates the very definition of a renewable resource: what it means for a resource to be renewable is that it replenishes over time to replace what is used up through consumption. 

The justification for the prime directive and the keystone of Brennan’s political economic theory is the law of substitution, which she articulated as an amendment to Marx’s ideas in Capital. Brennan argues that labor-power, the source of surplus value in Marx’s view, is but one form of a more general kind of energy, which can be mobilized in any of its forms to produce commodities.4Today, a growing number of scholars including John Bellamy Foster and Kohei Saito are arguing that a similar doctrine was already present in Marx’s writings, and that he did acknowledge nature’s role in value creation. Indeed, a note in the margins of my library copy of Exhausting Modernity –  in response to Brennan’s statement that Marx failed to perceive “that nature as well as labour is a source of value.” – says defiantly in reply: “wrong: he saw it as a source of value.” This is a point made loudly and often by eco-Marxists like Foster and Saito, with reference to the Critique of the Gotha Programme and various unpublished notebooks.  However, whether Marx thought that human “metabolism with nature” was merely the precondition for the reproduction of labor-power, as Brennan thought, or a direct process of value-production, as Saito and others believe, is beside the point. The law of substitution, though perhaps an overly grand title, offers a framework for responding at an abstract level to apologetic claims that resource depletion is avoidable within a capitalist economy – and a guide for the sort of policies that might, perhaps, avoid it in a more socialized economy. She writes:

The process by which one energy source will be replaced by another can be formulated in terms of what I call a law of substitution. According to this law, capital, all other things being equal, will take the cheapest form of energy adequate to sustaining production of a particular commodity at the prevailing level of competition.5Exhausting Modernity (London: Routledge, 2000), 96.

The key word here is “cheap.” For Brennan, Capital’s choice6Meaning here, roughly, those capitalists operating under the structural constraints imposed on them by the accumulation process – for Brennan, presumably, the law of substitution Mesly is in the midst of describing. We must note our only grudging acceptance of the language of Capital engaging in action verbs, a favorite tic of Marxists and theorists influenced by Marx’s economic model in Das Kapital. We have a principled disagreement with the late-Marx-style view that Capital, thus abstracted, issues disembodied imperatives which everyone must follow and which absolutely determine outcomes – an ultra-structuralism captured in Marx’s quote in Volume III to the effect that “the capitalist is merely capital personified and functions in the process of production solely as the agent of capital.” We tend to think that capitalists and other individual or group agents in the economic system act under structural constraints, yes, but have their choice (especially if they’re better positioned) between various plausible courses of action within those constraints, meaning agency matters and history is contingent rather than determined mechanically. Furthermore, as a purely pragmatic point, we tend to believe saying “Capital does xyz” is a tool wielded by academics as a sort of handwavey pseudo-explanation that explains nothing at all, unless there is a clear “translation” into plain English of which incentives are driving which people into undertaking which actions – but if such a “translation” exists, why not just publish that straight up, rather than first say that “Capital demands, Capital organizes” this or that? The plainspoken version is one accessible to the lay reader yet, being a “translation,” basically expresses the same causal argument. However, since Brennan uses such Marxish language herself, and Mesly mostly explains what she means by it to our satisfaction, we’ve let him use these formulations in the piece, though not without grumbling about it. –Eds. of energetic source is predicated on cost. Capitalism has no loyalty toward human beings. It has no inbuilt incentive to provide employment, other than the minimal requirement to maintain a consumer base with sufficient funds to buy its commodities, which it periodically undermines anyway. Capital will just as quickly move it from human labor to mechanical or digital labor, if the latter can be made to produce at a cheaper cost.7Models of political economy that do not assess the rate of reproduction for energetic sources (such as those built upon a classical labor theory of value) aren’t wholly arbitrary – but they’re not a historical necessity, either. They’re  non-arbitrary because they establish a commodity’s cost on the basis of the difficulty for human beings in acquiring it. This anthropocentric positivism is pretty  common sense if you recognize humans alone as agents in the economic process, which means in turn that only human labor and human demand influence price. This perspective assumes that humans are the only subjects (and, typically, not even all or most humans), whereas everything else in nature is viewed as an object. It is this very subject-oriented perspective that Brennan accuses Marx of replicating in his critique of capitalism. Brennan finds the subject-object dichotomy repeated throughout history and concludes that it is a perennial temptation of humankind (see more on this below). Nevertheless, its implementation as the basis of a global political economy is the result of historical accident, not necessity, as it requires the backing of state support, a certain level of technological achievement, and a sophisticated and naturalized articulation of human nature as homo oeconomicus. Cf. Sylvia Wynter, “Human Being as Noun? Or Being Human as Praxis? Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn: A Manifesto.”  To challenge this view requires attacks on multiple fronts: the redefinition of the human and the development of a new dominant cultural paradigm; the inclusion of historically ignored voices, such as those of underdeveloped nations, gender and racial subalterns, and non-human living beings, in the calculus of the prime directive; and political pressure to implement the new directives for our economic planning and institutions.

Each energetic source has its own individual characteristics – but Capital is only interested in those characteristics that affect its cost. Capitalism, in turn, thus organizes reality on a hyper-positivist plane. All that matters about an energy source are the present conditions that influence its potential to serve as a source of value-creation. Such conditions include currently available technology for extracting, processing, or deploying such sources and their geographic distribution.8Brennan notes the important role played by the state, insofar as it can implement tariffs and other policy measures that influence the cost of using resources within its borders. Factors which do not impinge on cost – most notably, for Brennan, the rate of reproduction of energetic sources – are ignored by this capitalistic calculus.9It’s worth noting that “reproduction” in Brennan is being used in its economic sense of self-perpetuation – so in the case of a resource, its “reproduction” is synonymous with its “regeneration” or “replenishment” over time, at a fast rate in the case of solar or wind power and at a glacially slow rate in the case of fossil fuels – though of course in the case of labor-power specifically, the resource in question is in fact replenished continually via that biological meaning of “reproduction” we all know and love. –Eds. 

Thus, Brennan argues, the law of substitution operates around the speed of acquisition for any given resource at any given time.10Exhausting Modernity, 107-8 and 118ff. A source of energy that takes millions of years to replenish (fossil fuels) will be cheaper than one with a more rapid rate of reproduction (labor-power) if it can be acquired faster. So while labor-power may have historically been the go-to source of energy, because it had the advantages of moveability and of paying for its own reproduction,11Ibid., 87. technological and infrastructure developments have made using fossil fuels and other unsustainable forms of energy much more desirable (read: cheaper).12Brennan also notes that Capital will attempt to find ways to speed up the rate of reproduction, as by genetically modifying organisms; Exhausting Modernity, 118-120.

Just as an energy source’s characteristics can be divided into those which are priced into a commodity’s cost and those which aren’t, so too, says Brennan, can they be roughly grouped into two categories: those affected by space, and those affected by time. Speed of acquisition is influenced by exclusively spatial factors that capitalist planning readily takes into account, while the temporal processes of natural reproduction are (notably) excluded. As she notes,

Reproduction time, as the real measure of value, intersects with the speed of acquisition to the extent that capital has to take account of the reproduction of raw labour-power and, by my argument, of the reproduction of other natural forces. But if capital can avoid this reckoning, if it can cheat, it will do so. It cheats by substituting one natural force, whose reproduction time it can ignore, for another which it cannot, where the former will do the job, and can be acquired at greater speed.13Exhausting Modernity, 107.

Brennan pithily sums up this “cheating” – that is, getting around the need to acknowledge nature’s biophysical timeline by substituting one energy source for another – as the replacement of time by space. In reality, she concedes, these are but two models of time – the time it takes to acquire a nonrenewable but available resource, and the time it takes for renewable resources to restore themselves. And in contravention of postmodern pieties to the effect that each model is as good as any other, she asserts that natural time is “real,” while economic time is “fanstasmatic.” Capitalism will always try to defer the “reckoning” of the synchronization of its time with natural time by continually moving on to more efficient and accessible forms of energy. As Brennan writes, “capital can defer its reckoning with nature, if not endlessly, then for as long as it can find energy sources that substitute for one another. Of course, capital has a very long way to go before it exhausts living nature, and would probably have destroyed the conditions of human survival before reaching that point.”14Ibid p.115. As the term implies, a reckoning will someday come: reality will catch up with us.15It’s interesting to compare Brennan’s thinking in this connection with certain similar sorts of pessimism from other ecological economists – for example, and most famously, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s famously grim argument in The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) that, as an upshot of the second law of thermodynamics, the natural resources upon which modern society depends are essentially un-reusable once they’ve been processed by our industries and turned into waste, such that we are inexorably exhausting a finite pool of available matter (a source of controversy around this book, as entropy in energy was unanimously accepted, but entropy at the macro level of matter was harshly criticized) and moving towards a sort of planet-wide “heat death” when eventually no more resources will be available. Georgescu-Roegen and Brennan seem to hold in common a certain gloominess about the non-renewability of resources – the former due to the doctrine of the impossibility of recycling, the latter due to capitalism’s inexorable hunt for less renewable but more available resources. Though ultimately Brennan seems to be the more optimistic of the two, given the possibility that a different economic system could in principle be more in line with what she calls natural time and adjust its output to meet the prime directive. –Eds. 

This analysis allows a more nuanced view of capitalist production than the typical “short-term vs. long-term” criticism provides. Capitalism is not merely prioritizing short-term profit over long-term profit (or stability or sustainability or wellbeing, etc.). Rather, the system is driven by an earnest belief  that by producing and accumulating as much value as possible as quickly as possible, it will promote the conditions for technological innovation and global prosperity, which will in turn allow us to be prepared and cushioned for any unforeseen setbacks and to preempt the drying up of energetic sources by discovering new possibilities. If fossil fuels run out, by then we will have developed new ways of producing electricity at a mass scale; and if uranium mining and hydro dams become too much of a burden (from a cost perspective), by then we will have found out how to turn neutrinos into power. If climate change becomes too devastating, we can send out a cloud of dust to keep the sun’s rays out; and when that stops working, we’ll have already prepared a new solution. 

The Foundational Fantasy

The mindset of capitalism appears hopeful at first glance. It implies that the system is working fine, that the perpetual crises and the countless near-falls are acceptable – maybe even beneficial. Capitalism is a gooey system that incorporates all contradictions, all counterforces, all resistance, and all innovation to its own forward-marching momentum.16Cf. the contemporary discussion of “Elite Capture” and other forms of corporate co-optation. But this hope is based in fear; it is inherently conservative. The more capitalism takes hold, the less systemic change occurs: borders are more static than ever, the same cities continue to attract cultural workers (New York, Paris, Berlin), infrastructure promotes path dependency, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Capitalism’s optimism is a strategy to avoid reckoning. Above all, it asks, why should we ever have to change fundamentally?

The question implies that we don’t want to change, that we like capitalism. And we do. If we didn’t like it, why would we be so afraid of changing it, or of finally facing its reckoning? For Brennan this is a question of a moral nature, which in the era of climate disaster takes on an eschatological character. 

Consider the notion of alienation, with which Marx so damned the capitalist mode of production. That workers should be alienated from the products of their labor, that commodities should appear to consumers divorced from any signs of their origins, is frequently described as a great evil that destroys communities and the dignity of work. It is that, too – but then when we look at our everyday experience, does it not also have a great deal of appeal? I enjoy going to the store and buying chips without meaningfully interacting with anyone, knowing I won’t be judged or even remembered the following minute. I don’t want to know where the chips come from; I already have enough things to think about. I dread walking past the crossing guard everyday, as I know that repeated thank yous and niceties will establish some kind of personal connection, however tenuous. Lévinas’s belief that every individual face imposes upon me a moral responsibility feels accurate – but I don’t want to be responsible for every person I meet. Does that make me evil?

Yes and no. Brennan’s most interesting contribution to political economy is her analysis of the interactions between the individual and the collective. She employs her background in psychoanalysis to give an account of the way the individual psyche is dialectically related to its social structure. She contends that

psychoanalysts have observed social dynamics in miniature, that psychoanalytic thinking is premised on looking down a telescope the wrong way. If omnipotent impulses are ‘out there’ in the social, they wash through the psyche, especially the infant psyche, which is unshielded from the impact of affects from without; unprotected against, say, anxiety or other energies and feelings which the infant mistakenly takes to be its own. In other words, the affects and impulses pre-exist the infant. We are born into them.17Exhausting Modernity, 8-9.

Our entire psychic make-up is molded by the affective environment into which we are born. This environment includes the people who surround us as well as the institutions and cultural practices in which affects are codified and incentivized. Brennan uses the term “energetics” to refer to “the study of the energetic and affective connections between an individual, other people and the surrounding environment.”18Ibid., 10. 19Brennan plays fast and loose with the term energy, often blurring the distinction between the biophysical energy involved in the economic process and a psycho-spiritual kind of energy that is required for mental health and emotional exchange. This is no doubt intentional, as she believes that the structure that organizes biophysical energy in our political economy has a direct and parallel relationship with the flow of psychic energy in the corresponding social body. And further, if this psychic energy can be mined as a source of value creation (for instance, in scientific research or artistic creation) then they might all belong to a single spectrum – as I suspect Brennan believes. But for the sake of this section, we will focus exclusively on the notion of energy in “transmission of affect.”

The energetic cycle prevalent in capitalism involves the proliferation of what Brennan calls the “foundational fantasy.” In her words:

The foundational fantasy is the means whereby the human being comes to conceive itself as the source of all intelligence and all agency. It conceives of the other (other people, the world around it) as objects that are there to serve it, to wait upon its needs without making it wait, to gratify it instantly! When the subject makes the other an object, it simultaneously conceives of itself as a subject. Intelligence and agency are what differentiates a subject from an object. This assumption, that an intelligent subject is counterposed to a world of objects, is critical in how the foundational fantasy is globally enacted. By enactment, I mean the process whereby the fantasy is made real in the social order, rather than the psyche.20Exhausting Modernity, 8.

The fantasy that we (individually and as a species) view ourselves as the origin of value involves usurping the creativity inherent in nature and obscuring our interdependence with our environments. Brennan appeals to Kleinian and Freudian psychoanalysis to draw out the intricacies of this process. In short, the child’s envy of its mother’s creativity becomes the foundation of its ego, which seeks to establish itself as the center of control and agency. Noticing that the mother responds to its cries for help, the child inverts their roles, believing itself to be the active parent and the mother to be a passive child. On a collective level, nature corresponds to the mother as the source of the species and all its achievements.21There are many interesting conclusions to be drawn from this notion. Brennan views this foundational fantasy as historically antedating capitalism. (St. Augustine is a key source on the articulation of the fantasy as pride.) It is a temptation to which human beings have always been prone. However, it has been limited in various ways, which prevented capitalism from becoming a global political economic system before now. Firstly, Brennan argues, women are less likely to maintain the fantasy for long, as they discover upon growing up that they possess the same maternal creativity their mothers have. This acts as a deterrent to a rigid ego, and there is therefore a resistance mechanism built into roughly half the human population. (Many forms of feminism have been criticized on the basis that they aim solely to turn women into men, i.e. to achieve success for women on a man’s playing field. This could be adapted to say that women are enjoined to reject their maternal, creative, “real” capacities, and develop rigid egos in order to succeed in the false economy of capitalism, rather than resist capitalism and the masculine ego to make them abide by the logic of nature.) Second, she continues, the overwhelming strength of nature next to human powers has historically been the norm. Third, religious institutions have generally conceived of the envious, avaricious, and proud impulses at the root of the ego as morally negative, and have acted to repress them in the public. (Other forces have acted in favor of the fantasy, such as the development of patriarchal societies – granted that “[w]hile a patriarchal culture formally denies the mother, it stops short of denying any indebtedness at all.” [Exhausting Modernity, 161].) However, at the dawn of capitalism, leaps in scientific and technological achievements, cultural programs such as humanism and the enlightenment, and political actions such as the expropriation of the commons by the state, unleashed the fantasy from its bounds. The relaxation of restrictions on usury enabled creditors to position themselves as the origin of wealth creation, instituting a regime of debt accumulation that has continued unabated since the 15th century. But perhaps the most notable development was the advent of colonialism, signaled by what Marx calls “primitive accumulation.” With the discovery of the Americas and its vast natural reserves and the conquests of Asia, Africa, and Oceania, European powers amassed enough capital and glimpsed a boundless future that enabled them to trigger the endless deferral of reckoning with nature. From this initial appropriation, a debt they refuse to repay, they continue to lend on interest, imagining that the process of accumulation can continue endlessly. If all debts were canceled and accounts settled, capitalism as it currently stands would collapse. We are always living on borrowed time. 22This makes for an interesting point of comparison and contrast with certain ideas from social ecology – Bookchin’s notion that the human aspiration to dominate nature is intimately bound up with some humans’ domination of others, Ocalan’s idea of patriarchy as the first and most foundational form of hierarchy from which all the others proceed. Neither thinker quite has Brennan’s psychoanalytic account of the motives behind this drive to domination, though some might object that she essentializes the idea of womanhood in a somewhat old-fashioned and overly gendered way by equating it with nature. –Eds.

To Brennan, capitalism mimics the natural world’s endless creativity, but does so through the binding of energy in “fixed points,” a term she borrows from Freud in his treatment of the formation of the ego. Just as the ego develops via the establishment of pathways – which allow free-form mental energy to assume distinct personalities, both limiting the individual’s potential and making social life possible – so capitalism implements channels to produce a world of commodities out of nature’s abundance. (There are further parallels to Henri Bergson’s conception of species as the forms taken by “life” in its endless self-fulfillment, or Georg Simmel’s view of social formations that develop to capture and manipulate life energy.) As it concerns the production process, however, these fixed points lead to an increasingly calcified society, in which the growth of capital and technological complexity tend to create problems of path dependency. The more globalized and complex the production process, the wider and more convoluted its supply chains, the less flexible it is and the more it will resist adaptations to resource requirements. This is perhaps the most significant limitation on the law of substitution. 

It’s important to note that this endless spiral is, for Brennan, as much driven from the bottom up as it is directed from the top down. Capitalism tends toward a positive feedback loop, in which the individual separated from nature develops self-contained desires that fuel production that fuel further separation from nature. In capitalism, the side of us that desires control, anonymity, pleasure, and irresponsibility is encouraged and rewarded. There is nothing purely “natural” about these desires. Rather, they are conjured, molded, and validated from among a range of potential norms of subjectivity to which the human being is prone. And in turn, the subject imbued with these desires endeavors to engineer a world to suit it, starting by elaborating a political economy that serves its ends. Capitalist political economy then creates even more of the subjects it requires to sustain itself. And human beings enthralled by the foundational fantasy maintain a capitalist system to enact their vision of reality. The chicken and the egg.23The dialectical model employed in this analysis of the individual’s relationship with the collective is notably non-Hegelian. Rather than produce the synthesis that goes beyond the thesis and the antithesis, a thesis gains traction by reproducing itself, building more and more momentum. The antithesis does not proceed from itself, but from the outside, and conflict is typically destructive, at least in the short term.

Commodity production is a means of fulfilling the fantasy:

The fantasy is made into reality, as commodities are constructed to serve their human masters, to wait upon them, at the expense of the natural world. These commodities are objects which are willing to be controlled; they are nature transformed into a form in which it cannot reproduce itself, nature directed towards human ends.24Exhausting Modernity, 9.

Commodities are objects that appeal to our self-conception as sources of agency: they are passive, instantly gratifying, and frequently magnify our strength by several orders of magnitude. They are levers designed to offer us little Archimedean points, fulcrums that convert the slightest touch to the greatest force. Brennan’s example is the car: an object in which you gently press a pedal and you get propelled at extraordinary speed. Alexa could be viewed as the communication commodity par excellence, amplifying our intelligence a millionfold with only a word thanks to the incredible reach of the internet. Perhaps the most perfect example of the commodity, however, is the gun. The power to destroy life with a millimeter movement of a finger. How much more powerful can you get? 

Indeed, the gun speaks to one of the buried secrets of the commodity: it appeals to our desire to pollute. In Brennan’s analysis, because the foundational fantasy is rooted in envy for genuine power – the creative, generative power of a nature we are merely imitating – all fantasmatic forms of creation seek implicitly to reject that power. As such, fantasmatic creation is in reality a mode of destruction, not a mode of production. Commodities bind nature’s living energy into a form that is no longer capable of reproduction. The commodity is thus a form of death, a death more final than that of any tree or animal in the forest, for these continue to serve ecological functions even as they decompose (precisely because they decompose), while a commodity merely depreciates. On top of that, commodities allow us to destroy further: to burn fuel, to produce heaps of landfill-destined trinkets, and to end life. And in fact, Brennan concludes, when we are motivated by the fantasmatic ego, we want to instigate that destruction – to spite the mother whose awesome creativity we can never truly usurp. 

Facing Reality

It is for this reason that Brennan contends that capitalist production is a misnomer: properly speaking, capitalist production is only more consumption. As she says, 

As by now should be abundantly plain, the reality of what we should relabel the consumptive mode of production (CMP), or ‘capital’ as we will continue to call it for the time being, is this: short-term profitability depends on an increasing debt to nature, a debt that must always be deferred, even at the price of survival.25Ibid p.125.

The idea of a debt to nature harkens to recent conversations on the topic of debt, and notably to the work of David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber proposes that the idea of a cosmic debt, a debt for our existence to God or to Nature, has periodically emerged in global cultures, but has always been revealed as a fallacy. We cannot be indebted to nature because we are part of nature. Brennan agrees. She argues that our createdness is construed as debt only when we shut ourselves off from the creative life force of nature. To be finished with the debt, we need not make a repayment; we need only to let the barriers fall down, to recognize our interdependence with other life forms, and to take into account the many voices appealing to us. 

Ultimately, bursting the bubble of capitalism’s false reality will involve a reckoning with nature. We would be better served doing so now rather than later. Graeber’s Debt is peppered with stories of Nasruddin, a wise fool character who appears in folktales across the Muslim world, and one fable in particular elucidates this necessity. While Graeber includes the story to highlight a distinction between gift exchange and monetary relations, it also serves Brennan’s argument well:

One day Nasruddin’s neighbor, a notorious miser, came by to announce he was throwing a party for some friends. Could he borrow some of Nasruddin’s pots? Nasruddin didn’t have many but said he was happy to lend whatever he had. The next day the miser returned, carrying Nasruddin’s three pots, and one tiny additional one.

“What’s that?” asked Nasruddin.

“Oh, that’s the offspring of the pots. They reproduced during the time they were with me.”

Nasruddin shrugged and accepted them, and the miser left happy that he had established a principle of interest. A month later Nasruddin was throwing a party, and he went over to borrow a dozen pieces of his neighbor’s much more luxurious crockery. The miser complied. Then he waited a day. And then another …

On the third day, the miser came by and asked what had happened to his pots.

“Oh, them?” Nasruddin said sadly. “It was a terrible tragedy. They died.”

Of course pots cannot reproduce – they are, to use Brennan’s terms, bound commodities. For the last 500 years, Nasruddin’s neighbor has held sway, as capitalism has forcefully implemented a logic of debt, interest, and commodification. But Nasruddin reveals not only the absurdity of insisting that capital can reproduce itself – i.e. that wealth has the same creativity as nature – but also what it would look like to take that logic to its conclusion. Death is part of creativity and of reproduction. Infinite accumulation is not possible. To move forward, we must let things go, allow real change, and forgive our debts.

This, fundamentally, is the principle underlying the prime directive to acknowledge the rate of reproduction in price.26It may also be fruitful to consider ways in which knowledge of the concepts Brennan puts forward – e.g. the natural time of the renewability of a resource – can manifest themselves other than in the money price of a product. After all, carbon pricing schemes like the failed Cap and Trade program have done little to nothing to push forward decarbonization. It may be that biophysical accounting in the form of carbon emissions budgets, or time accounting that integrates the regeneration rate of particular resources into the time horizon of economic plans, may be a better way of skinning the same cat. –Eds. Besides the prime directive, Brennan suggests that various resistance groups strive toward solidarity in their actions, rather than in-fighting. She proposes regional economies as a counter to the centralizing force of capital. Most importantly, we need a dialectical approach: neither a change of mindset nor a structural approach is sufficient. Both must operate together and feed on each other. Capitalism’s imitation of nature can serve as a guide for how to make the required reversal:

Although the process of imitation constructs a complex physical alternative world which papers over the original, and makes it hard to see the forest for the trees (or even to find a tree) this should not blind one to the existence of the original. It is true we cannot know this original with certainty. But if I am right, it may be we can learn more about the workings of the original through tracing the inverted path of the imitation. This is more likely to be so if the imitation does in fact compete with the original, so that an unconscious knowledge of the original informs the direction and content of its competitive contender. By reading the inverted path of the imitation, which is envious and fragmenting, we can deduce that the original is generous and cohering; if the imitation is repetitive, the original only makes the joke once; if the imitation seeks to abolish time, we can conclude that the original is timeless; if the imitation seeks to be everywhere at once, by instant telecommunications and most rapid transit, we deduce that the original is everywhere already. If the imitation is always trying to be something, and cares desperately for its status, the original is really something, and does not care.27Exhausting Modernity, 200.

Brennan’s imitative theory of evil charges that capitalism creates a shadow world which both distorts and parasitizes the real world. It convinces us through its hallucinations to take it for real and to participate in its maintenance. Even if the imitation has no substance of its own, it is nevertheless real. The stakes are high. In a sense, Brennan’s short career modeled that of the ancient prophets. Hers was a moralistic voice, crying from the wilderness of her small Florida university, “the pots are going to break! Reckoning will come! Sinners repent!” At every moment in history when empire and capital take hold and grow beyond the limits of our world – Mesopotamia, Rome, and the globalized present – there have been those who saw the situation in such terms. Brennan was as much a religious thinker as a psychoanalytic, ecological, and economic one. 

But whether we agree with her moral framework or not, Brennan’s overall analysis points to genuine problems – and genuine solutions. The political-economic system we have inherited manipulates us into acting out our most vain fantasies, and thus we shouldn’t feel overly guilty for our individual ecological impacts. On the other hand, our institutions emerge from the actions of individuals, and we therefore have the power to change them – if, and only if, we are willing to join the crowd gathering outside the walls of the imperial city. If we heed Brennan’s call, as Nineveh listened to Jonah, the reckoning that’s coming can be softened, and a catastrophe may be avoided. 


  • Philippe Mesly

    Based in Toronto, Canada, Philippe Mesly is a writer, translator, horticulturalist, and craftsperson, whose work examines intersections of political economy, religion, and environmental issues. He is the organizer of the Great Lakes Institute, which seeks to cultivate an independent, regional intellectual community.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.