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Why is the (hi)story of Spartacus so fascinating?

The short answer to the question, why the story of Spartacus has fascinated people for centuries, is that it is a story of the endless quest for freedom on the part of humankind. Why endless, one may object — has history not “ended’, normatively speaking, when liberal, capitalist democracy appeared to triumph conclusively at the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Francis Fukuyama would have it? Or is there still truth to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous words at the beginning of The Social Contract, that “humanity was born free, but is everywhere in chains”?

I believe that today humanity stands at a crossroads again in its history, where many people are, as many times before, already fighting for their freedom, despite the popular belief, that we are “free”. It is not only in a political dictatorship that one is unfree. But let us return to the history of Spartacus first.

Spartacus — who has been immortalised in novels, films, television programmes (the most recent of which is the popular series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand), sculpture, painting, even in music and ballet — lived during the time of the Roman Empire, and led a slave revolt against Rome around 73-72 BCE. This was no ordinary revolt, and because of the military successes of Spartacus and his fellow (erstwhile) slaves — among whom the gladiators trained the others to handle weapons — it took several Roman armies or legions to crush the revolt, the last six legions (about 50 000 trained soldiers) of which were commanded by Crassus, the richest man in Rome.

Spartacus exemplifies the person who reaches the point where he or she has to decide to act, in the face of the imperative, “freedom or death” — what Lacan calls the “revolutionary’s choice” — because their existence has become intolerable. It seems easy to understand that someone who is compelled to fight in the arena to the point of death, for the amusement of others, could reach this point, unless one keeps in mind the way that gladiators were motivated to fight in the arena by their vaunted reputation as fighters — something carefully cultivated by their Roman masters as that which brought them fame. In the TV series referred to earlier — Spartacus: Blood and Sand — this aspect of the lives of gladiators is well developed and portrayed as a way to ensure that gladiators did not rebel against their masters.

Spartacus was evidently different, but because the exact circumstances within which he took the lead in the insurrection are not known — several Roman historians, including Plutarch, Appian and Florus, wrote accounts of the slave revolt, which differ in some respects — the novels and films celebrating him as a folk hero could take the poetic liberty of speculating about his motives. In Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it is conjectured, for example, that the lanista or gladiator school owner, Batiatus, betrayed Spartacus by first searching for, and finding his enslaved wife, and then having her killed to assure himself of Spartacus’s undivided gladiatorial concentration on remaining the champion. When Spartacus discovered this treachery, it was enough to convince him that gladiators’ only true enemies were the Romans, and not other gladiators; hence his orchestrated revolt.

In the novel by Howard Fast, and the films based on this novel (the best known one by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas in the title role), his motives are construed differently, centring on the sacrificial death of a fellow (African) gladiator at the hands of the Romans, after he refused to kill Spartacus, despite having the opportunity, in the arena, and choosing to turn on his Roman masters instead. But whatever the motives behind Spartacus’s revolt, the fact remains that he chose freedom, or death, rather than to live as an “instrument with a voice” (the Roman conception of a slave).

And although the people who serve the dominant system — liberal capitalism — today, no longer literally have to fight in the arena for the amusement of the elites, there is good reason to resist the kind of violent oppression that exists today, too, and has existed, in some form or another, since the time of Spartacus. This, I believe, is the reason for people’s enduring interest in, and being drawn to, this tale of rebellion against a dominant system which, although it was a “civilising” force in one respect, maintained the Pax Romana through merciless oppression in the face of the slightest resistance. As Hardt and Negri point out in Empire, today’s global “imperial” forces — which include all the interconnected capitalist states, with their combined military, technological, political, scientific, cultural and diplomatic power — are also, on the one hand, a force that maintains peace, but whose hands are bathed in blood, on the other. Just think of Iraq as an example of this.

But here I would like to turn to someone else to validate my claim that the present is, no less than the time of the Roman hegemony on earth, a time of a certain kind of “oppression”, or — in his terms — of a certain kind of “systemic violence” which no one can escape. I am talking about (as the very knowledgeable Master Bates will no doubt realise even before I mention his name) Slavoj Zizek, of course — the best known philosopher on earth today, and a media phenomenon as well as an outstanding intellectual; a colossus in global intellectual circles, in fact. Zizek has been described as the “Elvis of cultural theory” — a metaphorical description that captures neatly the way that his intellectual work transgresses all conventional boundaries. But don’t be fooled by his “popularity”, or icon status. He is a rigorous thinker who knows his Plato as well as his Hegel and Nietzsche, or his Marx as well as his Freud and Lacan. In fact, there is no better way to learn about Lacan than by reading Zizek (to begin with).

Here I shall treat readers with just a smidgen of Zizek’s thought, given space constraints. In one of his recent books (he has written so many that one cannot keep count), called Violence (2008), he distinguishes among three kinds of violence: subjective violence (the most visible kind, that involves clearly identifiable agents), symbolic violence (the kind inherent in language, in so far as it tends to impose a certain “universe of meaning”, more fundamentally even than more obvious kinds of linguistic violence, such as incitement or hate speech), and then, objective or systemic violence (that of political and economic systems, which tends to be in the background, invisible to most people, but often with catastrophic effects on the lives of ordinary people).

But why call the latter a kind of violence? Isn’t it people who are violent, while economic systems simply structure social reality “economically”? Zizek’s explanation, which I can only present in ruthlessly truncated form here, leaves no doubt that such violence is indeed felt in social reality. He leans on the work of philosopher Etienne Balibar in this respect, and says the following (pp12-13):
“Balibar [who] distinguishes two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism, which involve the ‘automatic’ creation of excluded and dispensable individuals from the homeless to the unemployed, and the ‘ultra-subjective’ violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in short racist, ‘fundamentalisms’ … Our blindness to the results of systemic violence is perhaps most clearly perceptible in debates about communist crimes. Responsibility for communist crimes is easy to allocate: we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did wrong. We can even identify the ideological sources of the crimes — totalitarian ideology, The Communist Manifesto, Rousseau, even Plato. But when one draws attention to the millions who died as a result of capitalist globalisation, from the tragedy of Mexico in the sixteenth century through to the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, responsibility is largely denied. All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed and for which there was no ‘Capitalist Manifesto’. (The one who came closest to writing it was Ayn Rand.)”

Lest anyone charge me with using Zizek to refer to the extremes of human suffering that resulted from the ruthless economic exploitation, by Western powers, of the natural resources of colonised countries, and that, today, we live in a far more civilised world, let me hasten to disabuse them of this illusion.

Zizek reminds his readers that one cannot simply dismiss the claims regarding the systemic, structural violence of capitalism by claiming that “capital”, the force at the basis of this process, is just an “ideological abstraction”, and that we should rather look at the actions of capitalists, many of whom admittedly support worthy humanitarian causes. This supposed “abstraction”, he remarks, may not be part and parcel of the social reality perceived by the senses, but it nevertheless determines what goes on at the level of concrete, material processes (p 11):

“ … the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality.”

In fact, he argues, one cannot grasp the social reality of concrete economic activity and production unless one grasps the other level, of capital as really “running the show”, albeit “behind the scenes”, as it were, from where it determines real-life happenings, including economic and hence, social, catastrophes.

“Therein” [he says; p 11] resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective, systemic, anonymous”.

This explains why people are dumbstruck when one criticises capitalism as a system — they see only the concrete productive process and the wealth it produces for some individuals. But they do not grasp what Zizek explains so well here, that it is the process of capital itself, which is entirely abstract, that has far-reaching, violently disruptive effects on the lives of ordinary people. Americans are still losing homes today, for instance, as a result of the financial crisis that erupted in 2008, despite the fact that “all that happened”, occurred at the level of abstract financial transactions, which went horribly wrong.

Hence, in a certain sense, if one wishes to oppose such an inhuman, abstract system today in the name of human freedom, it is much more difficult to do so than it was for Spartacus and his fellow slaves to oppose the might of Rome (which required great courage, of course). Difficult, because to convince people at all, to begin with, that we are not really free, is almost impossible, given the likely response: “Of course we are free! Aren’t you free? To say these things, to go where you like, to live where you like, to buy what you like … ?”

My answer would be that our vaunted freedom is very circumscribed — sure, we are “relatively” free. BUT, one cannot simply go where one likes (who has filled in a visa form for, say, Canada, recently?). And one cannot simply live where, or buy what one likes, unless your name is Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. And even our freedom of speech is not guaranteed, despite our progressive constitution …

But to participate with thinking individuals like Zizek, Hardt and Negri, Foucault, Immanuel Wallerstein, Peter Joseph, Julia Kristeva, David Harvey, Renata Salecl, Chris Norris, Ian Parker, Naomi Klein, Joel Kovel and many others, in the intellectual revolt against capitalism, is possible, and is also an instance of the revolutionary’s choice.


  • 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. Stu Stu 7 October 2010

    ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’ is my guilty pleasure.

  2. Saul Saul 7 October 2010

    You really should be aware that you have taken an ancient conflict, remodeled it in modern terms, and then claimed, despite noting that the evidence is highly limited, that those modern terms are a good way to think about the person. Spartacus is best remembered as a bloodthirsty and violent man. Not in any way a democratic leader, or liberal democrat. What ever your reason for wanting to write about this topic, leave Spartacus out of it. Or write a proper history.

  3. Grant Grant 7 October 2010


    (sigh), you missed the point I’m afraid…

  4. HD HD 7 October 2010

    Well, it depends what you mean by “liberal” and “capitalism”…

    Modern “liberal capitalism” is far removed from economists’ “free markets” and classic liberal political values.

    I think these conceptual clarification, coupled with a very long post, makes it difficult to debate all aspects of your argument.

    A few general comments then:

    (1) Is the culprit the economic system (liberal capitalism) or the coercive institutions that underpin the system?

    You seem to imply that “capital” (whatever you exactly mean by that) in itself as an ideational force shapes institutions and creates coercive systems to sustain it?

    In that sense I agree that there is a powerful relationship between ideas and structures. Yet we need to be specific about what ideas and the extent of their influence…

    (The agency/structure debate is also relevant in terms of just how much ideas matter)

    Many of your examples speak to the coercive powers of states and ideational structures (rules regimes).

    You will therefore need to make a historical case that capitalism as an idea (and be specific what you mean by it) led to the formation of these ideational structures.

    I think this is a difficult case to make conclusively.

    Especially since you seems to consistently misconstrue certain historical periods/events as “liberal capitalism” when it was something completely different.


  5. Bert Bert 7 October 2010

    Saul – You appear to have access to information that not even the ancient Roman historians seemed to have regarding Spartacus! Care to share them with us? Whatever Spartacus was like as a person, the fact is that the slaves accepted him as their leader (which already says a lot), and he rebelled against the violent oppression of human beings (slaves) by the Romans. He chose ‘freedom, or death’, rather than live under intolerable, inhuman circumstances. This is why he is a model for us, today, and why many people have revered him – how else do you explain all the culturally creative work done in his memory – in music, sculpture, ballet, film, television, literature? Rather than using ‘modern’ terms to model him, I think that we can learn from his ‘ancient’ example – which is what I tried to do here. You have missed the point completely.

  6. V3 V3 7 October 2010

    It is easy to criticise the violence and lack of freedom in a capitalist system (whatever that is and however you define it) but with what does one replace it?

    The anarchy that ensued after the sacking of Rome and the end of Pax Romana? That was as violent and unfree as any system before or since.
    The feudal system, which was the response to the barbarians? The serfs had pretty miserable violence infested lives. The barons weren’t too happy either, hence Magna Carta.

    The wars that ravished Europe from medieval times to WWII? No thanks.

    The Muslim colonisation? The Spaniards weren’t too happy and conditions under Shari’ah Law (modesty police, amputations) are violent and repressive.
    Revolutionary socialism? Whenever its been tried the serfs, sorry, lumpens seek to escape to the West. And Stalin was NOT Father Christmas)

    Africa’s non-capitalist system? Slavery is endemic (read Exodus) and the slaves who were exported from the West Coast were prisoners taken in war by fellow Africans. Then there is Somolia, Rwanda at the time of the genocides and the Congo – not quite havens of peace and quiet.

    Pre-Colomban South America with its human sacrifices?
    Japan and China (pre and post Western invasion with their bloody wars)?

    To paraphrase Churchill, it’s pretty rotten, but its the best we have.

  7. HD HD 7 October 2010

    Lets look at some of your examples:

    (1) Congo & South America are examples of imperialism & colonialism, driven by mercantalist policies and geo-political warmongering rather than liberal capitalism.

    Smith and other classic economist of the time would not have defined capitalism along those lines. Peaceful trade not imperial conquest.

    (2) Financial markets/banks are only part of the story when it comes to the financial crisis.

    You are just repeating the popular narrative that the political elites and their buddies in the central banks/plutocratic elite want you to believe …

    (2) Historically it is difficult not to argue that even what passes as so called “liberal capitalism” has on the whole lifted millions of people out of poverty. As you rightly point out the alternatives have a far more visible & disastrous track record.

    (3) Finally, I think much of your argument really describes the action of the modern plutocratic elite. The alliance between the powerful coercive state and various special interest groups.

    Capitalism only gains its coercive element through the power of the state. Most of the abuses you mention are due to state sponsored coercion or state enforced rule regimes.

    I agree that there is a lot wrong with modern “liberal capitalism”, but I think the problem is that we have to little “classic liberalism” and not enough “free markets”.

    Instead we have a mishmash of centrist policies that tries to satisfy (mostly in rhetoric) everyone whilst only benefiting the political elites (pockets & egos) and their friends.

  8. Maria Maria 7 October 2010

    Excellent post, Bert! (I wonder who does the rating on TL? It should be obvious that this is a cut above the rest….Hello?)
    @HD: You evidently understand very little of what Bert has written here – or perhaps I should say, of Zizek’s clarification (referred to by Bert) of the relation between capital as a process (which he cites as an instance of Lacan’s Real), and the “violent” reality-effect it has. What you have dragged in by the hair has nothing to do with it, save to point out that it was neoliberal capitalism as a specific understanding of the way that capital works, that supposedly “freed” the markets. What it has done, was to try and make sure that capital is as unfettered in its reality-transforming capacity as it can be. Hence the need for reining in capital from time to time.

  9. Saul Saul 7 October 2010

    I suppose those who think I missed the point also consider William Wallace a freedom fighter? Maybe we should see the evidence of him being used to portray freedom as evidence enough of the fact that he was one.

    From Appian XIV “There many fugitive slaves and even some freemen from the fields joined Spartacus, and he plundered the neighbouring country, having for subordinate officers two gladiators named Oenomaus and Crixus. As he divided the plunder impartially he soon had plenty of men.”

    From Plutarch on their escape “On the road they fell in with waggons conveying gladiators’ weapons to another city; these they plundered and armed themselves.”

    It is not as I Spartacus achieved freedom and ran away. He attacked and killed innocents in the surrounding towns, robbing them and then sharing the booty with his followers.

    More importantly I think the main lesson we should learn from the Spartacus story is that cultural hero’s are seldom what we make them out to be, and that the lens of the modern perspective in completely inappropriate. Even if we want to make believe that this sort of raiding makes someone a stand up revolutionary.

    Personally I prefer Martin Luther King.

  10. Robard Robard 8 October 2010

    If Zizek knows his Nietzsche he doesn’t seem to agree with him. Even if Breitling watches grew on trees free for the taking, people would still be seeking to impose their wills on each other. It is not because material resources are scarce, which N. points out it isn’t, that existence is characterized by violence and oppression but simply because of man’s will to power. Possessions serve but as the means to and tokens of power.

  11. Fana Marivate Fana Marivate 8 October 2010

    Beautifully written, Dr. Olivier. (Sigh), that’s a lot of homework you gave me at the end, there. Oh well, better get on with it.

    Saul, get a life man.

  12. Trevor Trevor 8 October 2010

    I saw ‘Spartacus’ with my Dad when I was about ten years old. He smuggled me in. It was ‘no children 4-12,’ and I remember being nervous that someone would ask questions.I can tell you that Spartacus did look a lot like Kirk Douglas, and one of his contemporaries was tragically similar in looks to Tony Curtis.
    (Sorry for such trivia in the shadow of your erudite musings)

  13. X Cepting X Cepting 8 October 2010

    “an “instrument with a voice” (the Roman conception of a slave)” Ah, so that is where my boss got his ideas about the ideal employee, except he prefers me voiceless since I am in the habit of uttering inconvenient truts.

    “Hence, in a certain sense, if one wishes to oppose such an inhuman, abstract system today in the name of human freedom, it is much more difficult to do so”

    @Prof Olivier – It is not really difficult to fight and if you look closely at the way some people live you will realise that the battle has begun and there are victories already. Perhaps the most difficult part of fighting rampant capitalism (as it is practiced these days) is to realise that the old ways of fighting simply won’t work. Weapons and blood and guts simply upset or excite people (depending on their predilection). The weapons are communication and choice. If one do not like what a big corporate is doing, don’t support them and expose their every sleazy act on the net.

    So yes, prof, the slaves have already revolted started to revolt, but we have learned that exposing our leadership just gives the enemy target practice and becoming physically violent hurts, the Romans always have more fire power at their disposal (lawyers, jobs, markets, etc.) Ten years from now perhaps the philosphers will look back and talk of the “invicible rebellion” and quote Bert Olivier to validate this.

  14. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 8 October 2010

    It is strange how vigorously and totally some need to disagree with HD and Saul, whose look at this is simply ‘historical’ and their comments sound enough – not driven by ideological considerations, a case already signed up to and now to be ‘proven’. Don’t we know yet that if you approach ‘history’ with a theory of one kind or another, the facts are certain to fit in with it one way or the other?

    Of course Spartacus may serve as an example to anyone who wants to cast what he fought for in terms of ‘freedom’ – as Wallace in another movie(and as Luther too, if you saw yet another movie). That is myth-making, not history. Scholarship among other things, though, is entitled to examine what actual truth there might be in such myths, rather than swallowing them whole.

    In case I sound a spoilsport, I admired Kubrick’s Spartacus (I admired his Paths of Glory even more) in my view the best Hollywood ‘epic’ of the lot. But it would be innocent of me indeed to suppose it was history.

  15. Rory Short Rory Short 8 October 2010

    The root of the human problems of power abuse and exploitation of others lies within the individual human psyche not in the outside world. Thus attempts to solve these problems through wider social systems be they termed capitalist, communist, socialist or some other ‘ist’ are, for this reason alone, bound to fail. What is possible however is to evaluate the degree to which each of these systems aids and abets the individual’s expression of these problems. Given the history of the last few decades it would seem that in the public mind Communism achieves a high score in this regard and as a consequence it is eschewed whilst capitalism and socialism still remain acceptable to differing groups of people. For really tackling these problems however they must be tackled at their roots which lie within the individual psyches. The various spiritual traditions try their best to undertake this daunting task so I think that as societies the best we can do is to adopt the ‘ism’ which best minimises the individual’s opportunities to give expression to these problems.

  16. Bert Bert 10 October 2010

    Saul – I take your point about Spartacus and his followers’ ‘plundering’ – but it must be remembered that it was their Roman masters whom they were robbing and in many instances, killing – the very same masters who did not give a damn about slaves’ lives. ‘Freeing himself’ and running away would hardly qualify him as a fighter for freedom, would it? Fighting against the Roman armies for freedom does. I think you are the one who is guilty of projecting contemporary ideals into the past, when you state your preference for Martin Luther King. The concept of human rights is a modern notion, and cannot be expected to have figured in Spartacus’s mind. Besides, I admire King as much as you do, as I do in the case of Gandhi, Mandela and Guevara. I believe that Paul’s point about myth-making is relevant here (thanks for that, Paul) – I might have titled my piece: ‘Why has the history of Spartacus been the basis for so much myth-making?’ And my answer is: because whatever the new forms of oppression are, people sense in his (hi)story an instance of resistance against the oppressive power of his age in the name of freedom. HD – neoliberal capitalism is of relatively recent origin; the plunder of, i.a. the Congo by the Belgians under Leopold was no less an instance of the capitalism of the time. What do you imagine was served by extracting all the mineral wealth from their colony?

  17. Atlas Reader Atlas Reader 11 October 2010

    Too late. Fukuyama was right. History has ended. All that we have forward are re-runs. Capitalism is revolution-proof.

  18. X Cepting X Cepting 11 October 2010

    @Rory Short – Yes, that is the ultimate question: how do we limit ourselves from wanting to dominate and thus harming everything we touch. The brother of the lead character in the movie “Lord of War” puts it nicely. When asked why he has a sign up to beware of the dog, he replies, that it is to remind him of the dog inside himself that just wants to fight and f%^k everything he meets. We are not a nice species and what makes it worse (nauseating) is that we romanticise that not-niceness as if we are proud of the characteristic.

  19. HD HD 11 October 2010


    Are you equating the capitalism of the 1900’s with the capitalism of today?

    (1) What period in Congo’s history are you referring to? Under direct control of Leipold or under official Belgium control? It is two different periods with entirely different dynamics.

    (2) The “Mercantilist” period in Europe was characterised by protectionism and big state sponsored charter companies that had state monopolies to “manage” trade in different parts of the world. VOC is good example.

    In this context you had to fight to gain access to markets. Contrast this to peaceful trade and cooperation classic economist talked about.

    So to somehow characterise state monopolies and protectionism with liberal capitalism or even what economist of the time understood capitalism to be – is incorrect.

    (3) Colonialism was driven by many factors beside economic consideration – including geo-strategic concerns, military and political brinkmanship. You have to see it also in the context of two world wars and nationalism in Europe.

    I rather think the common denominator in your examples is the alliance between the state and powerful economic actors/interest groups.

    If that is your understanding of capital(ism) – then I agree. (Although you still paint a picture with very broad strokes)

    I would rather use different concepts like crony capitalism, state capitalism, plutocracy, corporatism etc. to describe the situation.

    The biggest lie the political elite sell us is that they practice free market (liberal) capitalism – when in fact they enrich their friends, placate their support base and limit our choices.

  20. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 11 October 2010

    The history of Spartacus is fascinating? I didn’t realise. I thought that the history of Troy and Sparta were fascinating considering how there’s very little historical accounts of Spartacus, the accounts are often conflicting and the stories of Troy and Sparta have enjoyed recent popularity thanks to Hollywood. Even the relatively obscure Hypatia enjoyed a recent stint in the film Agora, which all religious people should watch. But Spartacus? Nothing recent. The last time Hollywood noticed was in 1960 and Hollywood notices everything that’s popular in the minds of the peasants.

    My gut instinct tells me the history of Spartacus appeals to the same kind of people to whom the history of Che Guevara would be appealing. People who could glamorise the legend without having to think too critically about the facts, without being victims of the violence that these people caused and without having to recognise the net negative impact that both slave heroes had on their given societies.

    Neither Spartacus nor Guevara proved to be very effective leaders but both would probably look good on a t-shirt of someone with middle class guilt.

  21. Richard Richard 13 October 2010

    Capitalism is simply a form of social control, but one in which everybody shares, because everybody (practically) is greedy. The one thing people share is a desire for goods, and increasing people’s desire for these goods is a way of sublimating the desire for physical war and violence. Note how many former military leaders settle into lifestyles of opulence and acquisition: the physical violence is merely the preliminary. And so it is with social evolution. The more primitive we are, the more we indicate hierarchy and power with physical displays. There really is no other way of making people happily complicit in their participation in the process of hierarchy and control: remember also that capitalism offers a relatively conflict-free way for people who desire power to move towards positions of power. Pre-modern capitalist power-structures have historically been unstable because they make power-acquisition difficult and limit opportunity, whereas capitalism gives the appearance of ease of moving up through the system. Look at the banking crisis to have afflicted the world a few years ago. What has really come out of it? Almost nothing. In London bankers are rubbing their hands at enormous expected bonuses, again. Doubtless this will be repeated all across the world. Why? Well, these are the power-holders. Who is to strip them of their power? What alternative power-structure is there? Nothing. We have created capitalism as a relatively efficient and friction-free means of social organsation through fear of other, projected violence.

  22. X Cepting X Cepting 13 October 2010

    @Richard – and that fear is reinforced daily by careful guidance through media entertainment? Another component that keeps the system working is distraction, sport being the most successful, living more powerful lifes by watching others live (TV)taking a close second place. It is all an illusion and the cracks are starting to show.

  23. Maria Maria 13 October 2010

    @ HD: As Bert has told me he is co-presenting a workshop on writing for publication this week, I’m sure he won’t mind me responding to you. Of course Bert has not equated today’s neoliberal capitalism and the capitalism of the 19th century – he said so explicitly. And of course the differences that you refer to – in the way capitalist processes of production were managed, then, compared to now – exist, but at bottom the driving force behind capitalism (as a certain kind of society and culture), namely, CAPITAL, has always remained the same, namely the process of destructive creation/creative destruction (Nietzsche, Schumpeter) of which Marx remarked famously that, under its impact, “all that is solid, melts into air”. That is, all forms of capital have been driven by the same motive force, to maximize profit, REGARDLESS OF THE COSTS (cf. Deepwater Horizon oil spill). The examples Bert gave come, as he pointed out, from Zizek, so I would suggest you read Zizek’s book, Violence, to understand his critique of capital.
    @ Garg Unzola: You have chosen the right nom de plume – you don’t smell so good…and you show very little understanding into the bargain. The very Spartans you allude to are also remembered (especially Leonidas) for resisting the might of the Persians in the name of freedom, just as Spartacus was, as far as one can gauge from the available material, motivated by a desire for freedom to oppose the power of Rome.

  24. Maria Maria 13 October 2010

    @ X Cepting: Glad to know we have another supporter, or rather, fellow-combatant, in the fight against capitalism! And I’m sure Bert would agree that the resistance is already there, and is widespread – look at the list of names he gave at the end of his post. And there are many more. This morning I was reading the Introduction of the latest edition of the ecological journal, Polygraph (online), on ideology and ecology, and the writers don’t pull their punches in their indictment of (mainly oil-based) capitalism as the main culprit in the eco-destruction of the world. It reminds me of the native-American saying (attributed to whom I’m not sure; perhaps Chief Seattle?): “Only when the last river has been poisoned, only when the last fish has been caught, only when the last tree has been cut down, then you will realize that money cannot be eaten.” In South Africa, too, we are seeing the destruction of forests for the sake of “development” (along the Garden Route, e.g.) without a thought for tomorrow. One wonders just how prophetic this saying will turn out to be.

  25. Richard Richard 15 October 2010

    @XCepting: The trouble is, what alternative is there to capitalism? Other systems of social control are no better, and in many cases, worse, because unlike capitalism, they do not allow any type of sharing in power. It seems to me to be the best of the possible scenarios. That, of course, excludes rampant US-style capitalism (and latterly Chinese, too) which becomes a complete value-system in and of itself, but perhaps a more circumspect (in modern times, anyway) European-style “social capitalism”. One cannot trust the rule of law to be upheld in a society without the mediation of capitalism, because there is nothing then to offset the “might is right” mentality. Look at India, for example: it was only when Indians refused to buy Manchester-made goods that Britain began to see the limits of its power in the sub-continent. If capitalism/trade had not formed part of the power equation, such Indian rebellion could never have occurred. It would have been restricted to physical violence, and no measures would have been ensuring against the disequilibrium. In some contexts, though, where society is simply too primitive (in the sense of not having “progressed” to capitalism) that abstract power-relationship simply cannot take hold. I think of Africa in this regard. This puts capitalism into the light of force for and product of advancement. That is not to say it should not be adapted, as in Europe, for more equality, but capitalism per se seems to me unassailable.

  26. HD HD 15 October 2010


    Although I understand what he means by CAPITAL as a society and culture – I don’t entirely buy the argument – But then again, I don’t have much time for postmodern discourse.

    I would rather use a different conceptual framework that doesn’t pre-load itself in favour of Marxist prognosis/solutions. (This is my main point – people must be clear about the conceptual framework).

    To illustrate a completely different conceptual framework (a bit alarmist and extreme):

    Check out these two links:

    The first is just an example of the type of analysis I feel more people should be making (I don’t agree with all of it but it is a nice conceptual contrast to this post).

    You will notice how it touches on very similar themes to some of those made by lefties like Klein (shock doctrine), Negri (empire/financial elite) and Wallerstein (structural).

    The second link just illustrates why I am sceptical that the left has any real solutions…

    The mainstream (statist) left just makes things worse by giving more power to the same people that are causing all the problems in the first place.

    Far from breaking the authoritarian stranglehold of the power elite (oligarchy) it will end up giving them more power!

    For some reason more government/regulations and global institutions are seen as the solution…yet it is the very instruments of elite control.

  27. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 18 October 2010

    The Spartans also employed eugenics and had a strong belief in racial purity. You were only allowed to be a Spartan citizen if you went through their rigorous training called agoge and if you could trace your lineage back to the appropriate He-Man of a former age. Furthermore, the Spartans were notorious for expanding their territory and long after the Persians were beaten were still warring with other Greek tribes for supremacy of the region. This sounds rather elitist to me and a far cry from the petty slave uprising of Spartacus that was hardly worth its footnote in the annals of history.

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