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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.


  1. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 20 July 2016

    Richard – Thank you for so eloquently and with such insight spelling out the implications of my analysis in terms that are more oriented around country/nation, currency and capital-allegiance. It chimes well with my own teasing out of the meaning of the mytochondria-metaphor that Stone used, and has illuminated the matter considerably for me. Isn’t it amazing how little understanding there is of the situation you have sketched so well!

  2. Richard Richard 20 July 2016

    Dissembling and distracting is axiomatic of politics. Presenting things as other than what they are is the nature of the beast.

  3. Richard Richard 20 July 2016

    A final metaphor: Wagner’s Ring. Once the Rheingold was discovered by Alberich and turned into a ring (the Euro), the lust for the power it would give ruined all who came in contact with it. Repercussions led even to the estrangement of Brunnhilde from her father, Wotan (Britain and the EU). Eventually it resulted in Gottedammerung, and the whole universe (EU) collapsed. It is all there, from the Nibelungen working away in the netherworld to extract the gold (the enslaved people of Greece and the Mediterranean), the Valkyries (EU parliament) and the gods, or Germany.

    I recently attended the entire cycle of operas, and found the sagacity of Wagner in projecting into this crisis awe-inspiring. It is an ancient story, eternally recurrent.

  4. PSaBe PSaBe 21 July 2016

    There is a repetitive mantra expressed in the article I would like to address. The old conservative population in Britain voted to Leave and the young liberal population voted to Remain. The insinuation has been that by voting Leave, you are a xenophobe racist longing for the glory of the imperial days of Great Britain.
    There are other alternative explanations as to why people voted leave. To be more accurate why the old, poor and less well educated people – going by the surveys, chose to leave. Perhaps they did not consider it a good idea to have unelected politicians meting and doling laws without accountability. Having politicians accountable for their actions seems to be quite at the forefront of SA political discourse at present.
    Perhaps it was the hamstringing of progress they objected to. The influence of large cooperation’s on EU legislation, making it more difficult for “the little guy” to get into the market. The protection of EU producers against foreign producers by means of legislation
    The EU foreign policies have left much to be desire too. Its misadventures, in the Ukraine, a case in point. Did they really think, Russia would sit idly by? The keenness, to get Turkey into the EU, ignoring the human right s violations and its support of isis.
    A more reckless explanation would be, with the politicians threatening war and economic depression if Brexit happened. Maybe the majority of people in the UK just got tired of the stick and decided “bring it on”. Or maybe they just did not believe the politicians anymore.
    The EU is not the alpha and omega of all things liberal.
    In the end, being in charge of your own laws and foreign relations, of holding politicians to account, is a good thing. Democracy has spoken and Brexit it is.

  5. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 21 July 2016

    “In other words, the EU has simply become a new German empire, assiduously tended and maintained through economic blackmail, and all with the end-purpose of German wealth and German capital.”
    This is not quite correct. Though the effects of Germany on the EU are dominating, the reasons for this are not rooted in some conspiracy of economic warfare.
    I recommend the following article, which looks at Germany in a historical context, and the interests of the other European countries over time.

    A quote:
    “In short, the present mess is the fault not of the Germans, specifically, but of the German problem [{in its historical context}], which is not the same thing. European integration was designed both to contain and to mobilise Germany. Its centrepiece to date is the euro, but, given the unwillingness of the rest of Europe to enter into a matching full political union, the EU faced the resulting sovereign debt crisis and the Russian challenge without the governmental apparatus it required in order to end the crisis. Instead, the European project as now constructed, and especially the currency union, originally designed to contain German power, has increased it, just as the British Eurosceptics warned it would.”

    While I might not agree with all argumentation, I do believe it is closer to the mark than some premeditated economic conquering crusade.
    If there are “forces” at work here making money, they will not be confined to a nation….not in this day and age.

  6. Odge Odge 24 July 2016

    The British pound is over valued. The UK is only the 5th largest economy in the world BUT has a currency that is the strongest in the world. What left the pound went to the Yen (which is a nationalist island with limiting migration policies and the 3rd biggest economy) – a zero sum game that traders like myself exploit to the fullest potential.

    The EU is a bureaucracy and any democrat worth his salt should reject it out of hand.

    The people who don’t normally vote, voted leave. Shows one how out of touch with joe citizen the eu is and the uk was. The non voter is the biggest voting block in the UK and the 2nd biggest voting block in SA BUT one that is not properly canvassed nor understood.

    Perhaps old heads have more wisdom than young heads.

    1/3 of the England and Welsh population is 1st or second generation migrant. Scotland and Northern Ireland does not feel the alienation. At this rate of migration the UK is being colonized.

  7. Richard Richard 25 July 2016

    Currencies float these days, rather than being pegged. That means people will pay for them what they feel they are worth. Britain’s currency exchange rate expresses what, at the moment, people feel it is worth. Long ago, currencies used to be valued by governments as an expression of the “value” of the country. I remember reading about Churchill deciding what he thought the dollar value of sterling should be, and that going below a certain value would show Britain as weak. Once currencies were left to float – there was not enough gold to underwrite the actual value of coins, etc. – that idea ceased to have currency (a well-placed pun) and currencies themselves became commodified.

    The entire First World is being colonised by the Third World, and not as Africa was colonised, for its minerals, but as settler colonies, with the inhabitants of the Third World moving wholesale to the First World. They wish to be absorbed by European societies and leave Africa behind them. The era of decolonisation and self-government has not brought much to places like Africa, and taking a boat and demanding asylum or simply disappearing into the woodwork is easier than building a country. This is a type of osmosis, which will ultimately result in there being no First World, but a worldwide Third World (and maybe a type of Second World). In countries like Britain, certain political parties, like Labour, use immigration as a way to buy votes. There is a strong correlation between being an immigrant from the Third World and voting for Labour, and so the more people it imports, the more votes it will get. This is not just speculation, it is all available to peruse in statistical records. This is one of the problems of corrupt democracy, and there are few more corrupt than the Labour Party of the UK in the Developed World.

  8. Richard Richard 25 July 2016

    Indeed, it may not be “consciously” planned in the way that your mean, but that is neither here nor there. It was planned in terms of obvious result. The effect is the same. It is not as a moral anti-German argument it is being debated, but simply by foreseeability of outcome. The removal of a dyke will allow territory to be flooded: the sea does not “decide” to flood the land.

  9. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 28 July 2016

    My first reaction was confusion as to how a country could be equated to a cell structure. I still don’t see it. It is an entire organism. Strangely enough that made me understand the Brexit advocates better. The organism does what it thinks is best for the organism. It does not stop anything that is symbiotic. It does not even stop doing something that is altruistic … it simply does what it feels benefits its own continued existence.

    Russia seems to be trying to reform the ‘Eastern Block’ and Brussels seems to be trying to form a ‘Western Block’ . What happens if both succeed?

  10. RowenBrown RowenBrown 7 August 2016

    Thanks Karl-Heinz. I only saw this article ofyours now. Well formulated and accurate.

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