FEBRUARY 12, 2016
IN HIS NOVEL Railsea (2013), China Miéville portrays a postapocalyptic world littered with endless layers of leftover consumer waste. Salvors pick through mountains of junk, hoping to uncover secrets from the pre-apocalyptic world. Cut off from the past and lacking any framework for understanding these objects, characters are left sifting the rubble, picking through the remnants of history, and taking what is useful while discarding the rest. As one character explains, “you don’t uncover the past if you’re a salvor: you pick up rubbish.” Railsea provides an example of what Miéville and Evan Calder Williams have termed salvagepunk, a genre of postapocalyptic fiction that ranges from the post-oil catastrophe narratives of the Mad Max series to the collage aesthetic of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). In these works, characters attempt to survive by picking through the waste of the Earth, combining and repurposing objects and ideas from the past based on their value within hostile environments.
Anyone familiar with Miéville’s work knows that salvagepunk is more than just a genre; it is also a theoretical practice. The transition from salvage as a noun (something akin to garbage) to salvage as a verb (meaning to repurpose) evident in Railsea provides a model for thinking about the ruins that lay before us; it demonstrates a way of picking through the rubbish in order to recreate the world anew. Salvage, a new “quarterly of revolutionary arts and letters” co-edited by Miéville, continues this intellectual trajectory, shattering our slack-jawed complacency in the face of ecological disaster, economic disparity, and collective struggle and inviting us to participate in a new radical political activism. “Why Salvage?” ask the editors: “Because we are wrecked. Because we need a strategy for ruination.” Not content to stand by as the modern world crumbles into a postapocalyptic nightmare, the writers and artists in this debut issue of Salvage provide a fantastic collection of essays, poems, and artworks that engage with the hopeful and pessimistic realities of this ruined and dead world, seeking to expose the already catastrophic — and apocalyptic — nature of neoliberal capitalism in the hope of inspiring radical change.
The collection’s centerpiece is “The Limits of Utopia,” written by Miéville himself. Avoiding any straightforward revival of hopeful optimism, Miéville’s essay provides a challenging discussion of deep problems facing the planet; in particular, it focuses on the fundamental incompatibility between environmental justice and the demands of capitalist accumulation. Countering the once-hopeful claim that climate change would unite rich and poor alike, Miéville notes that dreams of better worlds have become the fantasies of corporate newspeak. “Utopias are necessary,” he writes, “but not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree.” Exploring a range of problems — from a trash incinerator installed in the poorest district of Los Angeles to UN-backed plans to evict citizens from their land — Miéville portrays an increasingly polarized world where dreams of bright futures are often purchased at the expense of the world’s most disenfranchised. Miéville forces readers to question where they put their faith: what we need, in his view, is more rage at the false hope offered to us through the fractured lens of corporate solutionism. In what might be considered a slogan for the journal’s mix of optimism and indignation, Miéville writes that “[w]e need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford […] we cannot think utopia without hate.”
For Miéville and his fellow contributors, this combination of optimism and anger provides an oppositional politics that challenges the complacency of the Western world in the face of crisis and catastrophe. The essays can be seen to respond to what Mark Fisher has termed capitalist realism, or “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Jamie Allinson’s “Don’t Mourn, Accelerate” builds on these ideas by looking at the impoverishment of the Left’s response to the unending realities of crisis: instead of engaging with anticapitalist politics, the Left has sought refuge by nostalgically promoting a revival of organized class struggle or by turning toward the interconnected workers of the knowledge economy to coordinate a fitful battle against an amorphous, evasive, and decentered capitalism. Allinson examines the internet buzzword accelerationism: an emerging theoretical frame, adopted by revolutionaries and bros alike, that suggests that the only way out of capitalism is to expedite its violent, inhuman, and destructive forces so that it tears itself apart. Such a process does not necessarily lead to the end of capitalism, nor will it prevent ecological damage and worldwide disasters. Allinson, in contrast, highlights the need for a theoretical position that works “within and against” capitalism, which aims at hijacking the tools of industry in order to organize a postcapitalist world.
Capitalism’s destructive capacity then takes center stage in Neil Davidson’s engaging essay “Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction.” Neoliberalism, he argues, has erased the basic division between capital and the state which is vital to the protection of individual citizens. Beginning by challenging fantasies of the free market, Davidson highlights successive shifts brought about by neoliberal policies that have slowly eradicated the state’s opposition to capitalist growth; he further charts the ways that these shifts have led to increasingly divisive politics evident in reactionary policies such as the repressive enforcement of immigration laws in the United States and Europe.
Davidson’s analysis intersects with Daniel Hartley’s “Against the Anthropocene,” which articulates a way of imagining capitalism as a “world-ecology.” Hartley’s article expands the notion of the Anthropocene, a term coined by scientists to denote a new geological epoch demarcated by the human transformation of the environment. Geologists have generally traced the beginning of the Anthropocene to the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century; however, building on the work of Jason W. Moore in his recent Capitalism in the Web of Life, Hartley contemplates the world-historical changes brought about by the capitalocene, a moment originating in the 15th century which led to a reorganization of social and political life according to capitalism’s accumulation of “nature’s free gifts.” In contemplating these changes, Hartley also advances a much broader way of thinking about the capitalocene beyond its impact on the natural environment. In his thoughtful elaboration on “world-ecology,” Hartley expands capitalism’s zone of appropriation to include others forms of unpaid labor, including colonial appropriation of land, women’s domestic labor, and the possession of racialized and sexualized bodies — ideas that intersect with several of the essays that appear throughout this collection.
If it isn’t already abundantly clear, the essays collected in Salvage focus on rethinking the political valence of Marxism in the present. However, rather than simply scavenging Marx’s ideas, the authors revive the spirit of Marxist thought by creating a “salvage-Marxism” that rustles through the legacies of the past to contemplate their contemporary value while simultaneously integrating vital lessons from feminist, queer, and postcolonial studies. A number of essays explore these ideas through practical examples of ongoing sites of struggle and contestation. Morgane Merteuil’s “Building a Sex Workers’ Trade Union,” for example, explores the difficulties of organizing sex-work solidarity in the face of demands (often from feminists) for the increased criminalization of sexual labor. Similarly, Magpie Corvid’s “Marxism for Whores” challenges the image of the physically and psychologically damaged sex worker that drives the modern “rescue industry.” Corvid argues for a Marxist-feminism that refuses to simply transplant sex workers into even more degrading and humiliating industrial labor conditions, and she calls the Left to imagine stronger possibilities that offer greater equal rights for all. Complementing both Merteuil and Corvid, Mary Robertson’s “Re-asking the Housing Question” updates Engels by exploring the mounting inequalities and precarious labor that have contributed to Britain’s contemporary housing crisis.
As the discussion of “world-ecology” highlights, comprehending the changes initiated by the capitalocene requires a global understanding of the interconnections between capitalism and social and cultural life. Alberto Toscano’s essay “Communism Without Guarantees: On Franco Fortini” — published alongside several poems and brief essays by Fortini — provides specific models for thinking through global resistance to capital. Fortini himself writes in a poetic, aphoristic style that weaves through disparate events and struggles to comprehend their interconnections. Throughout, he is attentive to otherness and difference. In his stunning poem “Complicity,” Fortini contemplates the Western world’s indifference to worldwide struggles, while also challenging the Eurocentrism of much Marxist thought:
For every one of us who gives up
a miner in Asturias will be obliged to believe
in silks of violet and silver
and a woman in Algiers will dream
of cowardice and contentment.
For every one of us who consents
there lives a sad youth who still does not know
how much he will hate living.
These ideas play an important role in thinking through the possibilities and potentials of worldwide struggle, and they feed into several subsequent essays in Salvage that examine specific sites of resistance to capitalism’s contemporary global hegemony.
The increasing polarization of society as a result of neoliberalism’s erasure of the social state is touched on again in several essays that explore the intensification of racism in Europe and the United States. Richard Seymour’s “They’re Not Racist, But: UKIP and the Crisis of Britain” discusses the unquestionably racist practices of the UK Independence Party while highlighting its impact on migrants, refugees, women, LGBT people, and those on social welfare. Trish Kahle’s “From Ferguson to #BlackLivesMatter” contemplates the long history of racialized murder in the United States while also finding hope in the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement during a period when social movements and union support are in decline. Her essay reminds readers of the history of Black resistance to the murder and exploitation of Black lives, while also reminding readers of the slow speed of change. Two essays explore the growth of the anti-austerity Syriza party in Greece. Kevin Ovenden’s “To Be Young in a Time of Crisis” challenges the image of despondent youth portrayed in the media by exploring the precarious and evaporating labor conditions that led to youth involvement in the movement. Joana Ramiro’s “Wish We Were Here: A Melancholy Postcard,” provides a brief, personal snapshot of Syriza from her visit there, while also highlighting its interconnections with similar protests in Spain and Portugal. Though both were written prior to Syriza’s acceptance of Greece’s bailout deal, future issues of Salvage promise to provide engaging insights regarding these developments.
Two final essays contemplate images of ruination that proliferate in the media. Pablo Mukherjee’s “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow: Indian Fascism Now” takes India’s ruins as a starting point for thinking about the legacies of colonialism and the emergence of neo-fascism in the present. Nicholas Beuret and Gareth Brown’s “Dancing on the Grave: Salvage, The Walking Dead, and the End of Days” explores the current fascination with the postapocalyptic genre by looking at The Walking Dead (2010–). By positioning ecological disaster at the center of the catastrophic world, the series decenters the human subject as the agent of change. Beuret and Brown, however, locate a utopian hope in this shattered visage: in a world saturated with waste and garbage, characters are able to remake and refashion the world by repurposing objects according to their use-value instead of their exchange value. Such acts point to the hopeful possibilities of thinking a world beyond the limits of capitalism’s need for endless growth.
Published alongside these essays are a series of poems by Caitlín Doherty and Kunle Wizeman Ajayi as well as artworks by Laura Oldfield Ford, Karen Mirza, and Season Butler. And, attempting to keep the utopian spirit alive, Mark Bould provides a hilarious obituary of the father of neoliberal economics, Milton Friedman, from the perspective of an alternate universe in which Friedman becomes nothing more than a failed comedian and his economic policies become merely fodder for the dystopian imaginations of speculative fiction writers.
In Infinitely Demanding, philosopher Simon Critchley describes two responses to the despondency of the modern world: passive nihilism, which seeks to withdraw by shielding oneself from the world; and active nihilism, which prefers to stand by and take pleasure in watching the world destroy itself. Both are the typical responses to the realities of contemporary environmental damage, mounting inequality, and continual crisis. The essays and artistic pieces collected in this debut issue of Salvage could be seen as aimed at developing a revolutionary nihilism that seeks neither pleasure nor despair, that seeks to neither resolve oneself to the world nor the satisfaction of watching it crumble. Rather than simply standing by as markets crash, austerity movements ascend, and as racial and sexual discrimination intensify, the essays, poems, and artworks collected within attempt to uncover the hopeful portends of a world to come. The insightful and compelling pieces collected here provide readers a wealth of ideas and material to help salvage this badly broken world.
Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. New York: Verso, 2007.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Washington: Zero Books, 2009.
Miéville, China. Railsea. New York: Ballantine, 2013.
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Washington: Zero Books, 2011.