The Autumn of Capitalism

By: Hawa Arsala & Reya Sehgal ∞ Images: Somnath Bhatt

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

“Fate has cursed me with duality -- and I decided long ago that it is my ugly, evil side which dominates!” ~Two-Face, Batman #397

On April 15th, 2020, in other years known as Tax Day, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all New Yorkers to wear masks in public settings, defying the rules of an anti-mask law issued in 1845—the same law that was used to break up the Occupy Wall Street encampment in 2011. We had this law that prevented us from gathering with masks on, but the repudiation of this law still prevents us from gathering *now* in the name of public health. Donning these sanctioned masks, we had no choice but to jump on board the protective bandwagon if we wanted to access our increasingly enclosed commons—an area owned by no one but used by everyone. 

Masks have, perhaps, always signified a public self: a projection self, an Instagram self, a cosplay self, a law abiding self. If you reject the idea of the “one true self,” you can look at humans as an agglomeration of multiplicities—but we tend to define ourselves by dualistic thinking, mistakenly identifying self/other as our compass for belonging. In oppositional duality, masks can be either portals or enclosures. But dualities can collapse into each other in a layering effect. Between “online creator culture,” Finstas and deepfakes, wokewashing, and the ever-present guise of consumption, shedding these obfuscating layers becomes increasingly impossible. Portals and enclosures intermingle, imagination and illusion unite in bewilderment

Capitalism first and foremost relies on privatization, an enclosure of the commons, an abstract fence that insatiably craves further frontiers to conquer. A gnawing sense of lack that seeks, yet finds not. While these frontiers were once limited to our natural resources, and then our labor, they’ve extended into the reaches of our psyches through the media machines that feed the locus of our dreamstreams. In Earth Democracy, Vandana Shiva argues that enclosure happens along a 5-part process, the 5th part being “the enclosure of minds and imagination, with the result that enclosures are defined and perceived as universal human progress, not as growth of privilege and exclusive rights for a few and dispossession and impoverishment for the many.”

Ecology and Economy, warring words in the encroachment of market capitalism, in fact come from the same root: oikos (house). Our context today? A house divided. Our “household resources,” which could be signified by attunement and abundance, are made scarce, competitive, and siloed. Vandana Shiva writes against globalization’s “ultimate enclosure—of our minds, our hearts, our imaginations, and our resources.” If globalization is the ever expanding logic of market capitalism, and our home the whole earth, it comes as no surprise that amidst a global pandemic AND the largest protest movement in our history (against our present world order) we launched people into space again: “the final frontier.” 

The impetus to flee is strong. When enclosure creates dispossession, Jack Halberstam (in his intro to The Undercommons) writes that “homelessness” can be “the state of dispossession that we seek and that we embrace.” We free ourselves of burden, remove oppressive contexts, claim terra nullius, sacrifice the known for the unknown, and restart anew. But coupled with the human needs for refuge and exploration, we’ve got this continued BURN IT DOWN logic. The system is broken so let’s burn burn burn. The craving for the burn comes about in bursts, borne of our everyday accumulations of pain, or just dissatisfaction. Burns can be freak occurrences, explosive and wild, but they can also be controlled. Understanding our earthly cycles clues us in: when does the land need to rest, to replenish? How do we offer gifts to feed this cycle? What happens when we take the mask off? What are we afraid of? Burning alive? Maybe we have to burn.

When we listen to the cyclicality of the earth—our seasons, for example—our understanding of this late capitalist reality can morph. We can control the burns to conserve our home.

This is hardly a mythod you know:

As we conceptualized The Autumn of Capitalism, we knew that it had to be created through methodological innovation, as a way of re-purposing the power of changeable facts. An inception of imagination. And so we employ here a mythodology: we use the container of myth—a foundational tale—and embed it with historical reference points, fantasy, media and material culture, poststructuralist and spiritual tenets, and news analysis to serve as a living map. The intention of the mythod is to reveal the mechanisms by which illusion and imagination coexist. We apply this mythod through a space of emergence, a home fed by: selections from our personal libraries, the tarot, a sequence of scents, hot tea and spiced pistachios, childhood memories, Akashic records, ragas, multi-layer cake, and the reflection of sun off the first snowfall. We pull together decade-old ideas, natural materials to cleanse and bless the space. In order to feed the original site of imagination, we bring these resources and our fully present selves into the home from which we’ve been dispossessed, the essential space, thick with resources. Using these resources, we create what Arca and Björk call an “amniotic mood” in which “creative gestation, collaborative fecundation is possible.” The Fluid Enclosure.

As we brought our site of emergence and nascent mythod to a close, blaring lights approached our window. Six fire trucks, ambulances, and cop cars parked just outside; their sirens reminded us to look up. There, outside our window, was an emergency. Six or seven houses away, a building was on fire—giant flames shooting through the roof, and a pall of smoke enveloping us. Masked neighbors stopped on the street corner, pulling out their phones to document the scene. We were thrown back into a world of material violence, appreciating the tenuous safety of home. Emergence punctuated by emergency. 

A cycle in five acts

The Autumn of Capitalism invites us to remember our masked dualities, our propensity for market-enforced repetition, acceleration, and earthly amnesia. 

Awakened to our ecological selves, we observe our economical mirror selves—the spectral excitement of seasonal fun—and offer an imaginative reorientation of time, a counter to the illusion of market seasonality.

We invite you to take care through a knowing hand on the belly and deep breath as you step into the cycle, park this link in your browser for later, or revisit in pieces to create your own meaning.

١. Summer

Like an egg on hot pavement, feel your skin fracture loose under the infinite sun, bubble and bake into a blob. Summer is for bobbing and blobbing. Hardcore in our leisure, bodies collide next to air conditioning units, on fire escapes, in buses, over 3-day weekends.

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start to summer here in the States. It’s a day meant to honor those who served in the U.S. military, but reminds us to constantly remember those who’ve lost their lives to uphold the American construct. We must pass this gate of mourning before we gain permission to enjoy water spectacles, synchronicity, spontaneity, uncorked fire hydrants, fluid enclosures. We live with abandon. 

In his Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre analyzes peasant festivals of antiquity as celebrations of nature’s bounty: “In one day they devour all the provisions and stocks it has taken them months to accumulate. Generously, they welcome guests and strangers. It is the day of excess. Anything goes…. By celebrating, the community was welcoming Nature and was rejoicing in its gifts; more than this, it was associating Nature with the human community, binding the two together.” The festival of yore was a down payment on securing a prosperous harvest in the future. The bigger and more active the celebration, “the larger the amount of blessings in return, the greater the prestige, the influence, the power.”

By congregating and squandering all health gained through the year, maybe the Wuhan pool party in August was a bet placed on collective well-being. “Festival is a risk, a wager on the future,” writes Lefebvre. 

Our festivals today are an “experiential activation.” They are meant to activate your experience, to secure the bounty and blessings of the future...for stakeholders. 

Jon Stone, a producer of the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle, tells Fortune magazine, "In the ’70s and ’80s, festivals were the realm of pirates and crazy people, but as time went on in the late ’90s and 2000s the rest of the corporate world has caught up and now it’s just business." By capitalizing on the festivity around a concept or idea—like the celebration of abundance or presence—the fruits of our gyrations become the jam of former railroad and oil billionaires.

Just let go, we wouldn’t know what to do with all that money anyway!

In the year 2020, the phantasm of summer festivals lurked in empty fields. Without the summer-music-festival medicine to keep us raving, crowds were given space to transcend social contracts and honor humanity in a show of protest, public mourning, and commitment to liberatory practices. Tis the season of uprisings, after all.

The tension of summer heat catalyzes a negation of the current order. During the Red Summer of 1919, the United States was recovering from World War I when the Spanish Influenza hit, exposing the shadows of our nation—anti-immigration sentiment, and racial and gender tensions. There was the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In 1967, “The Summer of Love” took place alongside a backdrop of nearly 160 race riots. Stonewall in 1969. Telegramgate in Puerto Rico just last year.

Somewhere between ecstasy and rage, our values are born. In the heat and tension of Summer 2020, we wore them on our algorithms—our unique cell code in the digital panopticon. We projection mapped our protest imaginations onto the central watchtower, knowing we are being watched. Is the tower just as much a prison for the watchers as is the realm they watch?  Can our rebellion fantasies be quelled?

Our season of heat and tension ends with Labor Day, a day celebrating the achievements of the American labor movement. This year, on September 1st, Nike M, Nike’s maternity line, launched in North America, Europe, and Africa. Last year, the company was critiqued for their maternity policies in an op-ed. But this year, Nike celebrates the labor of labor. A baby blobbing in its mothers arms, a $45 recycled plastic spandex celebration. 

We live with abandon. Instead of boiling into the ground, tether to the ether of heat. Rise where they can’t reach you. Rise before you       

۲. Fall

I have a red aglaonema which, just before a branch is about to fall, pushes out a bloom. It’s not showy, it stays closed like a bulb, but it’s a sign: a big burst just before it’s gone. Trees do this, too. They maximize in fire tones, blazes all around, before the drop, the crunch, the whoosh into earthly powder. The colors are brightest just before the ash.  

“Fire season” in California has extended from summer into fall—it, too, operates on an accelerant timescale. In 2020, 8,056 fires have burned 1,409,987 acres (CA is approx. 100million acres). Of the top 20 most destructive CA wildfires, 16 took place in the last 5 years. These fires created literal hellscapes, leaving behind the harsh conditions of a non-earthly landscape, human and animal habitats turned to ash. Plant ecologist and ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Potawatomi nation, who are known as “people of the fire.” They believe that fire was bestowed upon them “to do good for the land.” In fact, the neglected practice of controlled burns, which were written off by colonial forest management, is critical to maintaining biodiversity, when applied “at just the right season.” Hazel and beargrass, for instance, which are used for weaving baskets—vessels for collection—require controlled burns. Not ashes to ashes, but ashes to gifts.

When fire destroys, it absolves, envelops, asphyxiates, seduces. It signals a site of combustion—human control over fire initiated a technological turning point, a new frontier of creative potential. Moons later, the spooky orange sheen of the Bayway Refinery—always visible from the NJ Turnpike—might signify the sheer innovative power of the petrochemical industry, but its toxicity gestures to a humble house eternally burning.

“If you think the house is burning down, this is how you monetize it.” 

- Harper, Industry, HBO

Fall is all “sell sell sell,” cram for finals, PREPARE TO DIE, get that money!

Fall, the autumn of capitalism, is a quintessential 90s ad, a Benetton-industrial-complex pumpkin-spice-latte fall-into-the-Gap New-York-rom-com-fantasy. It’s lit with that new iPhone camera, bright and saturated, ready for publicity. It maximizes inclusion, just before the end (Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks kissing in white snow, urban, aglow).

Before that spectre of THE END comes the harvest. Reaping your rewards, gathering your resources, feeding and stuffing—stuffing birds even—feeling so full, so sated, rich with earth and family and home. 

Through the capitalist illusionscope, Thanksgiving is Fall at its pinnacle: a harvest operated by scarcity. It’s the one day you get everything you crave those other 364 days (marshmallows as salad, fertile families, conquering a bird that makes you sleepy). Though typically rooted in celebrations of the white cis-het family, it proscribes a universal vibe of conquest-induced gluttonous love. And so, in more “just” revisions, Thanksgiving brings everyone to the table. But it’s the fulcrum of a trauma loop, a day constantly misremembered, the loop a lullabye to make sure this black friday is the most prosperous yet!!! The -itis.

Remember: Morpheus, god of sleep and dreams, trains people to be awake in their sleep state. To navigate the Matrix as a Dream Yogi. Lull accordingly.

Outside of the programmed fantasy (the Thanksgiving table) fall is a psychedelic gemscape, earth returning to earth. The harvest can be a public rather than private good, because it has been. Actual abundance. Affective abundance. Accountable abundance. It calls you to the victory garden to marvel at the gifts from the earth, the healthy people, the economy of horizontal exchange. On the Fall Equinox, feel that perfect balance of night and day. 

Feel the light shine through your skin.

۳. Winter

If summer is the thirstiest, the wettest, the most spontaneous, winter outside is sparse, and inside dry with manufactured heat that leaves you parched in the morning. It quietly tells us to use our energy sparingly. It encourages slowness. It marks an end, a natural or spiritual death. 

Wintertime marks the apex of class fantasy. At a time of resource scarcity and literal hypothermia, wealthy winterites reject natural death. Winter fashion manufactures a titillating mirage of luxury, as do romantic visions of mountain lodges, with their cozy views from high vantage points, or ice hotels filled with fur coats and vodka. The fantasy of winter is its conquering, whether through puffers filled with the down of downed geese, through winter sports marked by bodies strapped to metal, gliding over snow and ice skating in tiny spangled leotards, or through escaping the season entirely: jetsetting to a faraway island with the glimmer of eternal summer—a delusion materially upheld by service sector workers. 

Capitalism throws us bones, little celebratory breaks allowing escapes from our dispossession. The Holidays, our Happiest Season of all, are hyped for months. Christmas’ commercial turn may have saved us from masked mobs pursuing a Purge-like Saturnalia, but its change is really in privileging gifting over taking. Magazines overflow with gift ideas—for coworkers, every type of girlfriend, tweens, and techies—but family sits at the center of Christmas. We’re told, as Americans, this is the time to come back to your family center, subsume yourself into your family unit, prioritize those around you, and if that’s too much, here are the tools for self-obliteration: movies, gluttony, darkness, and spiced cocktails. For this short period, rest, recuperate, privilege hearth over forge. 

But capitalism is forge forever!! A mere 10 days into the season, after our much needed rest (“you’ve worked hard all year, you deserve it!”), comes the New Year. We rested, we reflected (if we’re lucky), and now we forge ahead, and fast. We rebuild our beach bods for a season 6 months away; we’re off to the races, now via Peloton, and ASAP. We resolve to change with timestamped goals, erasing the failures of our past year in favor of a New Year, New You future. Industries, too, showcase their technological innovations, teaching us about the future they’re building for us, so we’d better hop on board. Now the magic of winter is gone. Now snowfall becomes a nuisance, hampering our mobility—flights to conferences grounded, cars iced in. 

The illusion of newness embedded in the accelerationist timescale of capitalism is a false spring. Opening up our imagination to the cyclicality of the seasons can create “fruitful opening to erosions and renewals,” writes Jussi Parikka in The Anthrobscene. We don’t leave behind and forge ahead; we rest in ways that nature prescribes, feeding positive feedback loops of fertility. Nature rests and relies on its adaptive resilience: bears and salamanders hibernate, birds don their warm winter plumage, tree sap rises to feed us spring syrup, perennial plants lay dormant while annuals spread their seeds for the new season. Regeneration requires death, but it doesn’t require ending. 

۴. Spring

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City caught fire and killed 145 workers—mostly women and children. Neglected safety features (like sprinkler systems) and locked doors were factors that led to this avoidable event—not intentional arson like the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were known for in previous factory fires. In a season of birth, laborers organized around death in the covert commons—a place known to everyone, but technically used by no one lest they be blacklisted.

The global workforce is over 3.4 billion people, and the garment industry employs 430 million of those. Yet problems still persist and have even become occupational hazards. Buildings are still burning, except this time they’re in Rana Plaza. Conditions are still bleak: SOS notes are found in the products of household brands. 1 million ethnic Uighurs and Muslims are being held in forced re-education camps in China, the largest internment since World War II. They are forced into labor at factories that many of our favorite brands work with. The invisible commons and communiques exist because the conditions for organizing have become so violently enclosed.

Why these problems persist could be attributed to the ways in which we continue to cling to and normalize servant-master relationships. In “Vertiginous Capital,” Jack Halberstam says, “we live in a world where instead of trying to replace the masters who exploit us, we seek to become them in small and meaningless ways.” That our electronic assistants today represent “new forms of prosthetic power” not liberation. The “free time” these technologies have created for us is traded and brokered in the attention economy, not all of it is ours to spend. 

In spring we see the plans we’ve planted gain their own life force. What we’ve worked for, harvested, prayed for, mourned: it all comes into form. When we gaze at others’ plots we begin to see that the garden is not divided equally. Our plans are also growing on stolen land, so we must remember to offer back gifts at every blooming.

Luxury fashion’s spring garden debuts in September the year before. Which means it took at least a year or two to secure that sample bag. 

Seeing all this money makes my pussy wet, it makes my tits look bigger.” ~Candy, Spring Breakers

We practice for the summer over Spring Break. The halfway point of shedding. I feel sexy, maybe. Maybe enough for an orgy. There are so many new ideas to taste. It’s time to blow this bounty. Buy shit for no reason. The sampler pack. The trial run.

Definitely thankful for the practice of being bodied, noticing my edges when the crisp air plays my collar bones. Gratitude makes my clit swell. Spring is an apparition. A rewarding ghost.

۵. Fifth season

“If there no longer is any end, we enter interminable history, interminable crisis” ~Jean Baudrillard, Passwords

American capitalism is not invested in end, it is invested in accelerated repetition. It manufactures end, it plays into seasonality, but it does not want itself, its empire, its hegemonic reign to end. Hence expansion. Hence inclusion. This is crisis capitalism, forever: this is Chronic Capitalism. The uncanny recurrence of this pathology has been foretold, is being told, and is undergoing its next set of stories and theories. 

For this story, we are calling beyond the paradigm, summoning a 5th season to be our guide. If capitalism conditions us to prepare for a future that hasn’t come yet, then we ask that the best possible future meet us in the fifth dimension. We ask the anomaly, “how do you arise when the conditions are not in your favor?” We normalize the glitch, déjà vu, etc., to bring uncanny awareness to our own masks, illusions, conceptions of “real” and “right.” 

I remember being in an earthquake in Oakland and grabbing my phone to check Twitter to validate my experience...was I really just in an earthquake? Before these technicalities became extensions of our bodies, it was nature. Before mountains of invisible labor in the supply chain, we had literal mountains of invisible wisdom collected over eons. They’re still here! I’ve been visiting one every day at sunset, studying the messages in the clouds, wondering how long it takes to make a mountain.

If we were to wrench ourselves from the cycles as we know them and instead look to geological time, conservation, even the earth’s frequency, we might be able to absorb these knowledges into our imagination space. Feel the ti/t of the earth’s axis, the liquid at its center, a flow state guided by electromagnetics.

On December 20th this year, Mount Kīlauea on Hawai’i erupted and is now flowing into a lava lake. When lava cools quickly, often by pouring into water, we get obsidian glass.

In pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, obsidian was shaped into circular mirrors because of its reflective properties. These were often used as portals and worn by elites. Although there were many associations and functions of these mirrors, the primary use of obsidian mirrors was as divinatory technology to reveal a person’s destiny or communicate with entities in unseen realms like gods and ancestors. Earth emergencies catalyze adaptive creativity. 

Looking at the surface of the obsidian mirror, one can’t help but think of an iPhone’s surface. The pool of edgeless black mirror that holds the aggregation of screen names in contact lists, precious financial information, widgets that take us to other social worlds, music to entrance us, visual archives, a “commons” owned by big tech. And for the “real deal,” WalMart carries obsidian mirrors for all your looking-into-the-future needs.

The enclosure, well versed in mirroring, will attempt to confuse us into believing the enclosure as home. Maybe that’s what got Baudrillard all twisted. The more we emerge, the more the enclosure cannot hold us. It will erupt, it will counteract, it will scream like a little child.  With every imagination comes an illusion, there is no end to these cycles. 

One of our guides, the Empress of Fantasia from The Neverending Story, tells us “In the beginning, it’s always dark.” The void always seems to have a negative connotation, but it’s exactly what we meet when we close our eyes to dream. 

“There is always enough time for the right work.” ~Principle of Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Marie Brown