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Brexit, capital as meta-body, and mytochondria

So it did happen in the end. Brexit. Against expectations, judging by the polls immediately before the referendum on 23 June. But looking back, it is not surprising that it happened. Most of those voting to leave are older voters, whose emotional ties to a Britain before the “free movement” immigration from European Union countries became a routine affair impelled them to try and recapture a country that had more control over those who wanted to cross its borders. Needless to stress, this does have a xenophobic side to it, too – older voters are evidently less comfortable with an increasingly culturally heterogeneous population than younger ones.

And neither is it surprising that those who wanted to stay in the EU are predominantly young Britons, who are more at ease with the facility of movement between, and working in, EU countries than their older counterparts. Small wonder that indignation at the outcome of the referendum came chiefly from younger Brits. And then there was the financial-economic fallout, hot on the heels of the Brexit result, with the British Pound rapidly falling to its lowest levels in decades – it was even registered in the Rand-Pound exchange rate, which quickly stood at less than 20 Rand to GBP 1. But more importantly, to me this illustrated something about the “nature” (if it has one) of that strange beast, CAPITAL – it is no accident that one of David Harvey’s books is titled The Enigma of Capital. Let me explain what I mean.

At a recent conference in Madrid on “posthumanism” – a broad field of research that brings together practitioners across a wide spectrum of disciplines, from the biological sciences through economics, the social sciences and humanities, to information sciences and artificial intelligence researchers – one of the keynote speakers was Rosanne Stone, a renowned philosopher of technology. (Her book, The War of Desire and Technology, to mention only one text, is highly recommended for everyone interested in understanding technology today.)

In her keynote address Rosanne focused on the relationship between human society and capital (not capitalism, or the culture that grows around capital), which is – as few people realise – nothing concrete, but instead something entirely abstract and processual. Think about it: the major signifier of capital is money, but what is money? One might be tempted to believe that it is something concrete – don’t we put our banknotes and coins in our wallets and purses? Of course. But those among us who still recall the days when banknotes bore an inscription to the effect, more or less, that the bearer of a banknote would be paid the equivalent of the note’s value in gold by the treasury upon presentation of it, are in a position to grasp the fact that the note – that is, money – is merely a symbolic representation of capital. Capital itself, in other words, is something as abstract as mathematical numbers or algebraic symbols.

What Rosanne Stone proposed at the conference was to think of the relationship between money and society by analogy with that between membrane-defined “organelles” called mytochondria and the human body, in which (among other bodies) they exist. According to the most accepted hypothesis about mytochondria, these entities used to exist independently of human bodies, much like bacteria, but at some time in the prehistoric past they merged with the cells in (human) bodies, in a symbiotic relationship that turned out to be so beneficial for both that this fusion became permanent. By examining the mytochondrial deposits in human skeletons at archaeological sites, molecular biologists can determine many things about the living habits, diets, and so on, of humans millennia before us. The other interesting thing about mytochondria, which explains why Rosanne Stone used it as a metaphor to explain the relationship between capital and human society, is that the mytochondria in cells are a major source of their chemical energy.

Keeping this picture of mytochondria in the human body in mind, think of capital as mytochondria and human society as the body. Capital comprises an abstract system that can be hypostasised as being capable of existing independently of human society – in the form of quantitative, mathematical entities and relationships of the kind that investors use in their complex algorithms to forecast the probable numerical accumulation of investments expressed in quantitative terms (that is, abstractly as money). But – and here’s the rub – as Stone pointed out, this means that capital is a kind of “meta-body” (a body “behind” or “beside” another body, in this case human society), which potentially enjoys a separate existence, although it benefits hugely from being conjoined with the “body” of human society.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider how, depending on the degree to which human beings “liberate” capital from human interference in the form of capital regulation, capital expands (that is, increases) or contracts quantitatively. Under the neoliberal regime capital has expanded enormously, barring the contractions that one has witnessed when certain events have occurred to signal a limitation to its expansion, like 9/11 in 2001, which signalled a threat to its expansionary potential; or, as it is usually phrased, caused “negative sentiment” in the market(s).

The recent occurrence of “Brexit”, referred to earlier – Britain’s referendum results in favour of leaving the European Union as a free market and trade zone, within which capital and goods (and workers) can move freely – illustrates clearly to what extent Rosanne Stone’s comparison of capital with mytochondria clarifies its ontological status. The reason for the predictably sudden, and drastic, fall in the value of the British Pound can be understood as a huge convulsion in the “metabody” of capital, as if one of its limbs (and a very important one) has been amputated. When such an amputation occurs, a body bleeds, and that is precisely what has happened, although there are signs that reparatory surgery is having the effect of stanching the bleeding – decisions to leave British interest rates unchanged, for instance, and indications that trade deals between Britain and other countries (like Australia) will be reaffirmed – all of which amounts to healing the break that has by implication occurred between the UK (the limb) and the rest of the financial world (the meta-body that is capital).

In other words, for as long as this monstrous meta-body is fed, and can grow optimally (as when in-transit passengers go on shopping frenzies in spaces like the Dubai airport, which is really a giant shopping mall or “hyper-growth area” for capital) – with SOME (but not all) sectors of human society benefitting hugely from this “growth” – everything seems to be hunky-dory. This is apparent there, where the “state of health” of the monster that is capital is displayed for all to see, namely the stock exchanges of the world, where the condition of the markets (that is, capital’s “limbs”) is shown. But should any of these limbs be threatened, or actually be “injured”, it sends the meta-body of capital into paroxysms of “pain”, bleeding capital from the wound or wounds.

And such bleeding has equally painful consequences for human society, the host within which capital exists, of course – witness the negative effects on the lives of thousands (if not millions) of people from European countries and from the UK, who have been able to work unhampered in any country in the EU, including Britain, from the time that the EU was formed. The departure of Britain from the EU has changed all that – if it goes ahead, that is; the legal challenge to Brexit may still prevent it from happening – another attempt at corrective surgery to the meta-body of capital.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.