“In this world of artifice, going beyond the surface to a deeper level, that of the sheer essence of things, is no longer conceivable”
Renaud Garcia (1981-) is a contemporary anti-capitalist philosopher and writer who has voiced strong criticisms of the ideological direction taken by the modern left.
He caused quite a storm (1) in France in 2015 when he warned in his book Le Désert de la critique (2) that certain postmodernist strands of thinking were diverting left-wingers into a dead-end of disempowerment and irrelevancy.
Their deconstruction of reality went well beyond the anarchist insight of denying fake concepts which were used to deceive and dominate – such as “property” or “law” or “nation”.
Postmodernist “leftism” questioned instead whether the entities or structures which exploit and dominate us even exist.
Garcia said that if one accepted Michel Foucault’s claim that power relations existed everywhere, “it becomes illusory to suppose the existence of a subject which has not already been included in these power relationships, in other words a ‘human nature’ whose universal characteristics allow us to imagine an emancipation from repressive power”. (3)
In his 2018 book Le Sens des limites: contre l’abstraction capitaliste, (4) Garcia argued that the artificiality and abstraction of life under contemporary capitalism was dragging us further and further away from a real sense of being alive – in our bodies, in our daily lives, in our environment.
A new call had to go out to humankind, he wrote, particularly to its youngest generations, warning of this debilitating loss of contact with physical reality and demanding another way of living.
This could come from amongst radical environmentalists and anti-industrialists and “from the best of the anarchist and unorthodox Marxist traditions”. (5)
Garcia described our Western world as “a civilization with money as its universal mediation” (6) in which capitalism “encloses” and privatises all aspects of life.
It could not tolerate the idea of anyone living outside of its enclosure, hence its need to stamp out the practice of “subsistence” farming, where communities have the cheek to simply produce enough food for their own requirements, rather than for the requirements of the capitalist profit-machine.
Capitalism forced people into its system by giving them no choice, he explained: “Declaring war on subsistence means dissolving the autonomous ways of life of thousands of people and thereby enslaving them to commercial needs which they can only fulfil by going out to earn a wage”. (7)
Garcia also devoted an important section of his book to condemning the capitalist concept of “work”, which it tries to persuade us has always been a “natural” part of human life.
He pointed out that this was not at all the case: “It only came into existence, as a basic social function, when the capitalist system consolidated and expanded, at the turning point of the 17th and 18th centuries in England”. (8)
The primacy of “work” in our modern society devoured any deeper sense of existence and purpose, said Garcia.
“‘What do you do in life?’ This familiar question, which is supposed to be the first point of contact with another person, says a lot about the place that work takes in our lives. It reduces the individual to what he does in life, thus supposing a central role for work, which fills the otherwise neutral space of life”. (9)
Garcia echoed Ferdinand Tönnies (with his contrast between communal Gemeinschaft and commercial Gesellschaft) in drawing a distinction between what he called “vital praxis”, an individual’s effort and contribution to the community, and “abstract work”.
He explained that “work”, in this latter capitalist sense, was not about actually doing something useful or creative. It was just about spending a certain amount of hours in paid employment, the value of which was irrelevant. It was purely about quantity (of hours, of money) rather than about quality.
Garcia wrote that he regretted that so many on the left remain fixated with the capitalist fetichisation of work and even regarded it as central to their anti-capitalist struggles. This, he concluded, was “a blind spot for the whole of traditional Marxism”. (10)
He argued that it was pointless to merely point out the contradictions of capitalism, while remaining attached to the excessive optimism regarding technological progress that was essentially itself part of capitalism.
He declared: ” If we want to develop a critical theory of society which is not content with mere adjustments to the centre of the system of producing goods (defending ‘jobs’) or on its fringes (through a more quality-orientated form of economic growth) then we will definitely need to imagine going beyond work. This aim might well seem utopian, but it is also precisely the most realistic way of escaping from the false life of this economic abstraction”. (11)
The idea of defending a natural world which included human communities’ relationships with the environment, had been neglected by Western anti-capitalism, he said, particularly under the influence of mainstream Marxism.
Uprooted from our previous rural existences, we today often found ourselves living in a sterile and life-denying suburban sprawl, a space created “for the demands of capital”, where people were trapped in a dependence on their cars and thus on the oil industry. (12)
In Le Sens des limites, Garcia also echoed William Morris’s critique of the artificiality of industrial capitalism: “In this world of artifice, going beyond the surface to a deeper level, that of the sheer essence of things, is no longer conceivable”. (13)
In place of this, he proposed, like Morris, a different, socialist, world, where quality rather than quantity was the guiding principle: “Opposed to the world of having, this world of being will differ from it in the same way that a cultured eye differs from a vulgar eye, a musical ear from a non-musical one, a stiff and clumsy body from a supple and graceful one, a finely developed sense of taste from one brought up on the quick sensations of ersatz industrial food”. (14)
Garcia dedicated another section of the book to examining, and condemning, transhumanism, which he termed “the official ideology of technological capitalism”. (15)
This ideology “reduces the human brain to a simple processor of information, a mere calculating machine” (16) and is built on the “basic negation of the reality of living organisms”. (17)
Behind it lurked a “brutal dualism” which regarded mind and body as completely separate, and thus imagined the possibility of a “posthuman” self with no fleshly existence.
Worryingly, this ultra-capitalist creed was also embraced by some who termed themselves left-wing and who had swallowed the lie that technological and social progress amounted to the same thing.
The UK transhumanist Kevin Warwick wrote in I, Cyborg (2002) that his robotic future would leave behind those human beings who refused to abandon their real bodily existence and separate themselves from that hopelessly reactionary concept of nature: “If you are happy with your state as a human then so be it, you can remain as you are. But be warned – just as we humans split from our chimpanzee cousins years ago, so cyborgs will split from humans. Those who remain as humans are likely to become a sub-species. They will, effectively, be the chimpanzees of the future”. (18)
Garcia concluded his book by turning this label into a banner of defiance against the arrogant industrial-capitalist elite exemplified by Warwick.
He said that his work could be seen as fuel for an ideological movement opposing the life-hating transhumanist nightmare, an anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist “party of the chimpanzees of the future”. (19)
In an earlier work, Garcia praised the holistic and organic version of anarchism set out by Peter Kropotkin which “allows us, for instance, to see in every human society an organism which lives in a form most appropriately adapted to the environmental conditions, by means of increasingly active co-operation between its constituent parts”. (20)
Concluding a 2021 article on film director Terry Gilliam, in particular his classic film Brazil, Garcia wrote: “If we want to find a way out of the industrial labyrinth, let’s transform ourselves into free-swirling spirits”. (21)
Video link: Renaud Garcia – Le désert de la critique (3 mins)
2. Renaud Garcia, Le désert de la critique: Déconstruction et politique (Paris: L’Échappée, 2015).
3. Garcia, Le désert de la critique, p. 18.
4. Renaud Garcia, Le Sens des limites: contre l’abstraction capitaliste (Paris: L’Échappée, 2018).
5. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 288.
6. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 64.
7. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 36.
8. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 178.
9. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 111.
10. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 136.
11. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 169.
12. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, pp. 58-59.
13. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 90.
14. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 102.
15. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 205.
16. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, pp. 208-09.
17. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 210.
18. Kevin Warwick, I, Cyborg (London: Century, 2002), p. 4.
19. Garcia, Le Sens des limites, p. 287.
20. Renaud Garcia, La nature de l’entraide: Pierre Kropotkine et les fondements biologiques de l’anarchisme (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2015), p. 63.
21. Renaud Garcia, ‘Terry Gilliam (vu de Brazil)‘.