There is a fundamental difference between the subject’s alienation in the symbolic order and the worker’s alienation in capitalist social relations. We have to avoid the two symmetrical traps that open up if we insist on the homology between the two alienations: the idea that capitalist social alienation is irreducible since the signifying alienation is constitutive of subjectivity, as well as the opposite idea that the signifying alienation could be abolished in the same way Marx imagined the overcoming of capitalist alienation. The point is not just that the signifying alienation is more fundamental and will persist even if we abolish the capitalist alienation; it is a more refined one. The very figure of a subject that would overcome the signifying alienation and become a free agent who is a master of the symbolic universe, i.e., who is no longer embedded in a symbolic substance, can only arise within the space of capitalist alienation, the space in which free individuals interact. Let’s indicate the domain of this symbolic alienation with regard to Robert Brandom’s attempt to elaborate “the way to a postmodern form of recognition that overcomes ironic alienation. This is the recollective-recognitive structure     of trust.”[1] For Brandom, this

“may be the part of /Hegel’s/ thought that is of the most contemporary philosophical interest and value. That is partly because he attributes deep political significance to the replacement of  a semantic model of atomistic representation by one of holistic expression. /…/ It is to lead to a new form of mutual recognition and usher in the third stage in the development of Geist: the age of trust.”[2]

“Trust” is here trust in the ethical substance (the “big Other,” the set of established norms) which doesn’t limit but sustains the space of our freedom. Referring to Chomsky, Brandom gives his own reading of the classic distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom: negative freedom is the freedom from predominant norms and obligations that can lead only to a universalized ironic distance from all positive regulations (we shouldn’t trust them; they are illusions masking particular interests), while positive freedom is the freedom whose space is opened up and sustained by our adherence to a set of norms. As Chomsky has proven, language enables an individual who inhabits it to generate an infinite number of sentences. This the positive freedom of expression provided by our acceptance of the rules of language, while negative freedom can only lead to ironic alienation… But is the freedom of irony, of ironic distance, also not a form of positive freedom grounded on a deep acquaintance with the rules? Is something like ironic alienation not inherent to those who really inhabit a language?

Let’s take patriotism. A true patriot is not a fanatical zealot but somebody who can quite often make ironic remarks about his nation, and this irony paradoxically vouches for his true love of his country (when things get serious, he is ready to fight for it). To be able to practice this kind of irony, I have to master the rules of my language much more deeply than those who speak it in a flawless non-ironic way. One can even say that to really inhabit a language implies not just to know the rules but to know the meta-rules which tell me how to violate the explicit rules: it doesn’t imply making no mistakes but making the right kind of mistakes. And the same goes for manners that hold together a given closed community. This is why, in the old times when there were still schools to teach ordinary people how to behave in a high class society, they were, as a rule, an abominable failure: no matter how much they thaught you the rules of behavior, they were not able to teach you the meta-rules that regulated the subtle transgressions of the rules. And, speaking about expressive subjectivity, one can also say that subjectivity appears in speech only through such regulated violations. Without them, what we get is flat, impersonal speech.

What if we imagine Communism in a similar way: as a new ethical substance (a frame of rules) that enables positive freedom? Maybe this is how we should reread Marx’s formulation of the opposition between the kingdom of necessity and kingdom of freedom. Communism is not freedom itself but the structure of a kingdom of necessity that sustains freedom. This is also how I should have replied to Tyler Cowen who, in a debate in Bergen, asked me why I continue to stick to the ridiculously outdated notion of Communism. Why do I not drop it and just enjoy writing my provocative anti-PC comments with all their perversities and provocations? My reply should have been that I need Communism precisely as the background, the firm ethical standard, the principal commitment to a Cause which makes all my transgressive pleasures possible. In other words, we shouldn’t imagine Communism as a self-transparent order with no alienation, but as an order of “good” alienation, of our reliance on a thick invisible cobweb of regulations, which sustains the space of our freedom. In Communism, I should be led to “trust” this cobweb and ignore it, focusing on what makes my life meaningful.

This constitutive alienation embedded in the symbolic substance is missing in Saito due to his focus on the metabolism of the labor process. Seeking a pre-capitalist foundation of human life, he posits the process of metabolism between nature and humans as the ground, on which the process of capital is based. This metabolism was distorted by capital that parasitizes on it, so that the basic “contradiction” of capitalism is the one between natural metabolism and capital: nature resists capital, it poses a limit to capital’s self-valorization. The task of Communists is thus to invent a new form of social metabolism which will no longer be market-mediated but organized in a human (rationally planned) way. That’s why Saito is profoundly anti-Hegelian: his axiom is that Hegelian dialectics cannot think the natural limits of capital, the fact that the self-movement of capital cannot ever fully “sublate”/integrate its presupposed natural base:

“Marx’s ecology deals with the synthesis of the historical and transhistorical aspects of social metabolism in explaining how the physical and material dimensions of the ‘universal metabolism of nature’ and the ‘metabolism between humans and nature’ are modified and eventually disrupted by the valorization of capital. Marx’s analysis aims at revealing the limits of the appropriation of nature through its subsumption by capital.”(68)

Marx does not talk about subsumption under capital in abstract formal terms. Rather, he is interested in how this subsumption is not just formal, but gradually transforms the material base itself: the air gets polluted, deforestation accelerates, the land is exhausted and rendered less fertile, etc. Saito sees in this rift the basic “contradiction” of capitalism: once social production is subsumed under the self-valorizing process of capital, the goal of the process becomes capital’s extended self-reproduction, the growth of accumulated value, and since the environment ultimately counts just as an externality, destructive environmental consequences are ignored, they don’t count:

“capital contradicts the fundamental limitedness of natural forces and resources because of its drive toward infinite self-valorization. This is the central contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, and Marx’s analysis aims at discerning the limits to this measureless drive for capital accumulation within a material world.”(259)

When he talks about the “contradiction” between capitalism and nature, Saito remains within the confines of an opposition between the exploding demands of humanity and the obvious limitations of the finite world in which we dwell. The entire world simply cannot join in the consumerism of the highly developed countries since natural resources at our disposal are limited and non-renewable… What such a common-sense approach ignores is the opposite, the other side of exhaustion, of the growing shortage of natural resources: the excess, the exploding abundance, of waste in all its forms, from millions of tons of plastic waste circulating in oceans to air pollution. The name for this surplus is “emissions.” What is emitted is a surplus, which cannot be “recycled,” reintegrated into the circulation of nature, a surplus that persists as an “unnatural” remainder growing ad infinitum and thereby destabilizing the “finitude” of nature and its resources. This “waste” is the material counterpart of homeless refugees that form a kind of “human waste” (waste, of course, from the standpoint of capital’s global circulation).[3]

Ecology is, thus, in the very centre of Marx’s critique of political economy, and this is why, in the last decades of his life, Marx was extensively reading books on the chemistry and physiology of agriculture. (The reason why Marx turned to these themes is clear: he wanted to study the life process of metabolism without falling into the trap of conceiving life that precedes capital in the terms of a Romantic “vital force.”) Saito’s central premise is that THIS “contradiction” cannot be grasped in Hegelian terms, and that is why he mockingly mentions that Western Marxism “primarily deals with social forms (sometimes with an extreme fetishism of Hegel’s Science of Logic)”(262).

So, what mode of relating to Hegel should an ecologically-oriented Marxism assume today? Is Hegel’s logic a mystified/idealist model of the revolutionary process (Grundrisse, young Lukacs)? Is it the logic of Capital? Is it the predecessor of a new universal ontology?

When Chris Arthur says that “it is precisely the applicability of Hegel’s logic that condemns the object as an inverted reality systematically alienated from its bearers,”[4] he thereby provides the most concise formulation of “Hegel’s logic as the logic of the capital”: the very fact that Hegel’s logic can be applied to capitalism means that capitalism is a perverted order of alienation… Or, as John Rosenthal put it, “Marx made the curious discovery of an object domain in which the inverted relation between the universal and the particular which constitutes the distinctive principle of Hegelian metaphysics in fact obtains. The whole riddle of the ‘Marx-Hegel relation’ consists in nothing other than this: /…/ it is precisely and paradoxically the mystical formulae of Hegelian ‘logic’ for which Marx finds a rational scientific application.”[5] In short, while, in his early critique of Hegel, Marx rejected Hegel’s thought as a crazy speculative reversal of the actual state of things, he was then struck by the realization that there is a domain, which behaves in a Hegelian way, namely the domain of the circulation of capital.

Recall the classic Marxian motive of the speculative inversion of the relationship between the universal and the particular. The universal is just a property of particular objects which really exist, but when we are victims of commodity fetishism it appears as if the concrete content of a commodity (its use-value) is an expression of its abstract universality (its exchange-value). An abstract universal, value, appears as a real substance, which successively incarnates itself in a series of concrete objects. That is the basic Marxian thesis: it is already the effective world of commodities that behaves like a Hegelian subject-substance, like a universal going through a series of particular embodiments.

On Marx’s reading, the self-engendering speculative movement of capital also indicates a fateful limitation of the Hegelian dialectical process, something that eludes Hegel’s grasp. It is in this sense that Lebrun mentions the ”fascinating image” of capital presented by Marx (especially in his Grundrisse): “a monstrous mixture of the good infinity and the bad infinity, the good infinity which creates its presuppositions and the conditions of its growth, the bad infinity which never ceases to surmount its crises, and which finds its limit in its own nature.”[6] This, perhaps, is also the reason why Marx’s reference to Hegel’s dialectics in his “critique of political economy” is ambiguous, oscillating between taking it as the mystified expression of the logic of capital and taking it as the model for the revolutionary process of emancipation.

First, there is dialectic as the “logic of capital”: the development of the commodity-form and the passage from money to capital are clearly formulated in Hegelian terms (capital is money-substance turning into self-mediating process of its own reproduction, etc.). Then, there is the Hegelian notion of proletariat as “substance-less subjectivity,” i.e., the grandiose Hegelian scheme of the historical process from pre-class society to capitalism as the gradual separation of the subject from its objective conditions, such that the overcoming of capitalism means that the (collective) subject re-appropriates its alienated substance. The Hegelian dialectical matrix serves, therefore, as the model of the logic of the capital, as well as the model of its revolutionary overcoming.

But, again, which mode of relating to Hegel should an ecologically-oriented Marxism assume today? Should it be Hegelian dialectics as the mystified expression of the revolutionary process? As the philosophical expression of the perverted logic of capital? As the idealist version of a new dialectical-materialist ontology? Or, should we simply claim (as Althusser did) that Marx only “flirted” with Hegelian dialectics, that his thinking was totally foreign to Hegel?

There is another possibility: a different reading of Hegel’s dialectical process itself, not as the model of “subject-appropriates-substance.” Already decades ago, in the early years of modern ecology, some perspicuous readers of Hegel noted that the Hegelian idealist speculation does not imply an absolute appropriation of nature. In contrast to productive appropriation, speculation lets its other be; it doesn’t intervene into its other. As Frank Ruda pointed out,[7] Hegel’s Absolute Knowing is not a total Aufhebung – a seamless integration of all reality into the Notion’s self-mediation. It is much more an act of radical Aufgeben – of giving up, of renouncing the violent effort to grab reality. Absolute Knowing is a gesture of Entlassen, of releasing reality, of letting it be and stand on its own, and, in this sense, it breaks with the endless effort of labor to appropriate its otherness, the stuff that forever resists its grasp. Labor (and technological domination in general) is an exemplary case of what Hegel calls “spurious infinity,” since it is a pursuit that is never accomplished because it presupposes an other to be mastered, while philosophical speculation is at ease, no longer troubled by its Other.

What such a reading of Hegel implies is that Hegel’s dialectics cannot be reduced to a total sublation of all contingency in the self-mediation of the concept. This brings us back to ecology: Saito opposes Hegel, since Hegel is, for him, the very model of the negation of the autonomy of nature. Does Hegel’s Idea not stand for a productive process, which no longer needs to rely on a metabolic exchange with otherness but reduces every otherness to a subordinate moment of the Idea’s self-mediation? But if we accept our reading of Hegel, then Hegel not only tolerates but demands that we allow the irreducible otherness of nature remain other. This respect for the contingency of nature means that we should avoid the trap of reading ecological catastrophes as signs which point in an unambiguous linear way towards a final catastrophe.

Precisely insofar as we should take ecological threats extremely seriously, we should also be fully aware of how uncertain analyses and projections are in this domain. We will know for sure what is going on only when it is too late. Fast extrapolations only give arguments to global warming deniers, so we should avoid at all costs the trap of “the ecology of fear,” a hasty morbid fascination with doom and catastrophe. Only a thin line separates the correct perception of real dangers from the fantasy-scenarios about a global catastrophe that awaits us. There is a specific kind of enjoyment of living in the end times, in the shadow of a catastrophe, and the paradox is that such a fixation on the forthcoming catastrophe is, precisely, one of the ways to avoid really confronting it. To maintain a minimum of credibility, such a vision has to cling on to any bad news that come along: a melting glacier here, a tornado there, a heat wave somewhere else. They are all read as signs of a forthcoming catastrophe…

Even the big fires that were devastating south-eastern Australia in late 2019 and early 2020 should not be read in such a simplified way. In a recent comment in Spectator, Tim Blair opened up a new perspective on this catastrophe:

“Controlled burns of overgrown flora were once standard practice in rural Australia, but now a kind of ecological religious fundamentalism has taken the place of common sense. There are many examples of recent legal rulings that punished those who cleared land around their properties. ‘We’ve been burning less than 1 per cent of our bushfire-prone land for the past 20 years,’ says fire brigade captain Brian Williams, ‘that means every year the fuel load continues to build.’ Well-meaning but ignorant attempts to protect animals’ natural ecosystems are, in part, the reason those ecosystems are now nothing but cinders and ash.”[8]

The bias of this comment is clear: it is directed against the presumption of global warming, which, the author implies, should be rejected. But what we should actually learn from his comment is the ambiguity of signs. Here, a turn to theology may be helpful, since ecologists are often accused of harboring quasi-religious zeal. Instead of rejecting this accusation, we should proudly accept it and qualify it at the same time.

The beginning of the gospel of John contains a whole theory of signs (or miracles). God produces miracles, or, as we would say today, shocking things happen that disturb our common sense of reality like the fires in Australia. But “if we see miracles without believing we will only be hardened in our sin.”[9] Signs are meant to convince the believers, but when they are given, they also strengthen the opposition to Jesus in those who do not believe in him. This opposition “grows harsher and more belligerent, more open in its attempt to silence him; and each time he feels a deeper threat from the powers that were arrayed against him.”[10]

Blair’s comment should be read along these theological lines: although it was definitely meant to make us “be hardened in our sin” (of global warming denial), it should not be dismissed as a corrupt lie. Instead, it should be received as a welcome opportunity to analyse the complexity of the situation in order to make it clear how this complexity makes our ecological predicament all the more dangerous. In nature, this domain of contingency is one where the Idea exists in externality with regard to itself. There, we are, by definition, in the domain of ambiguous signs and of the “spurious infinity” of complex interactions, where each occurrence can be a sign of its opposite. It follows that every human intervention aimed at restoring some kind of natural balance can trigger an unexpected catastrophe, and every catastrophe can be a harbinger of good news.


[1] Robert Brandom, The Spirit of Trust, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2019, p. 501.

[2] Op.cit., p. 506.

[3] I owe this line of thought to Alenka Zupančič.


[5] Quoted from

[6] Gerard Lebrun, L’envers de la dialectique, Paris: Editions du Seuil 2004, p. 311.

[7] See Frank Ruda, Abolishing Freedom, Winnipeg: Bison Books 2016.