Inthe 1980s Spiderman didn’t wear a suit. He wore an alien. Old Peter Parker wore an alien symbiote and it was really amazing… until it wasn’t.
In the very first Spiderman Peter Parker hand-sewed his suit and wore the familiar red and blue for years. In the 1980s, however, he was fucking around on some alien planet and got a new black suit. He thought it was just alien technology, but it turned out to be a whole-ass alien.
Peter noticed because kept having these fucked up dreams which weren’t dreams at all. The suit was wearing him and web-slinging around the city, exploiting his surplus labor even as he slept.
Trying to figure out what was going on, old Spidey swung over to the Fantastic Four headquarters, and they told him the crazy news. He wasn’t wearing alien tech, he was wearing an alien. In fact, in the alien’s opinion, it was wearing him.
At this point, Peter Parker obviously wanted to get the thing off, but it wouldn’t move. Such is the nature of the symbiotic relationship. At some point, it’s not clear who is wearing whom, and it’s very difficult to remove. In many cases, separation means death.
Here we enter the ‘plot armor’ realm of comic books, where Mr. Fantastic simply had a magical weapon that blasted the symbiote off, without hurting Peter Parker at all.
So they blasted the symbiote off with a ‘sonic blaster’ and trapped it in a jar. Of course, it got out and became Venom later, but here ends our use of the Spiderman symbiote episode.
What is a symbiote? Well, you are. You carry around an entire ecosystem of bacteria and viruses—mostly in your gut—which help you eat your food, fart your farts, and survive. Each cell in your body carries mitochondria, which has its own DNA, it’s literally another lifeform that’s along for the ride. Symbiosis islife.
Take the placenta that cradles every baby, and which prevents the mother’s body from rejecting that foreign body. We have the ‘code’ to do that because we ‘copied’ it from a virus many million years ago. “In that would-be mammal living 160 million years ago, a symbiotic retrovirus enabled it to evolve a placenta over many generations.” Literally from before we are born, we are cradled in symbiosis. Indeed, that’s what you could call the entire in utero relationship between mother and child. And sometimes it goes on for a while. Like my son, let your mama go to the bathroom in peace Miro!
Symbiosis is broadly when lifeforms depend on each other to survive, which makes it a stretchy definition. But broadly we’ll take it to mean a close, long-term biological relationship. Like between the black suit and Spiderman.
Marx quite interestingly describes a symbiotic relationship between workers and Capital. Like all of your gut bacteria working together, human workers collaborate to make shit. Karl said, “As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they [workers] merely form a particular mode of existence of capital.”
Marx uses these biological metaphors throughout, which I assert are not metaphors at all. They are a literal description of the symbiotic relationship between our ‘natural’ lives and the ‘artificial’ lives of capital. Both categories are alive, though on scales as different as us and our gut bacteria. Indeed, Marx calls manufacturing “a productive mechanism whose organs are human beings.”
I say that this is a symbiotic relationship because we depend on work for our biological survival. We work to ‘put food on the table’, we often require corporate support for our healthcare, in short, we are in a symbiotic relationship with Capital for our very life processes. As Marx said:
We don’t think about this literally but we actually give up our lives to work. We spend hours of our day giving our bodies, minds, and precious time over to Capital. We think of economics as this isolated, abstract field, but it’s not. It’s just the symbiotic relationship between natural and artificial life.
As the miner Chris Evans told Michael Rosen in Worker’s Tales,
I go to work,
to earn money
to buy bread
to build up my strength,
to go to work
to earn money
to buy bread
to build up my strength
to go to work…
E. Coli is probably singing the same song, tooting around your intestines. Like any symbiosis, this relationship can get really out of whack. The bacteria in your stomach is in balance with you, but a tapeworm is not, and Capital is closer to a tapeworm at this point.
As Karl wrote, “Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labour-power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labour-power that can be set in motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labour-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.”
Fertility brings us to another point, because Capital has to do more than have workers that survive, it needs them to reproduce the next generation of workers as well. Hence the concept that we have to work to ‘provide for our children’, by entering into the symbiotic relationship that takes us away from our families from 9-to-5.
In older days there was this idea that one man’s salary should provide for their family, and that women should provide free labor at home. But now liberation has been construed as both parents working for Capital and children being raised by expensive daycare, ie commodifying almost all aspects of family life.
In an extended piece, Marx talks about the horrific practice of child labor in English capitalism today (and across the world still). I think the whole thing is worth reading because he also shows an awareness of coming climate collapse that ‘mainstream’ economists miss, because they treat their field as completely divorced from life.
What Marx is describing is a symbiotic relationship gone terribly awry, of ‘human beings plucked before they were ripe.’ Westerners think child labor is in the past, but it’s not, it’s just moved to other countries. There are still legions of suffering workers everywhere, propping up for what a few people is supposed to be a good life. But even this ‘good life’ sucks. Even seemingly rich people work all the time, are constantly away from their families, and somehow struggle to live on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Everything is serving what Marx called the ‘valorization’ of capital, and it’s not just sucking the life out of people, it’s decimating life as we know it on Earth. We live at the time of what Marx “the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race”. Our symbiotic relationship with Capital is leading not just to the degradation of us as hosts, but also to the planet that hosts life as we know it. The truth is that we don’t know life that well at all.
If all the growth we produce leads to the extinction of 90% of species like us while corporations benefit, have you not considered that these symbiotes are in fact artificial life, and competing with us for the planet? And have you not noticed that they’re winning?
The truth is that corporate life has emerged from the bowels of our greed as much as bacteria breeds in our actual bowels and not believing that this is possible doesn’t make it any less real. Marx quite openly described the different forms of Capital as genera and species, and I take him quite literally. He said, “We may designate the division of social production into its main genera such as agriculture, industry, etc. as division of labour in general, and the splitting-up of these broad divisions into species and sub-species as division of labour in particular.”
What I am saying is that we need to start looking at artificial life not as something humans are going to make in a lab, but something which already exists, and which has been around for centuries. AI in corporate (literally embodied) form has been around since colonialism in the 1600s, it was maturing by Marx’s time in the 1850s, and now it actually dominates the world. You can tell because the waste products of Capitalist growth are causing a mass extinction of all lifeforms that came before. Nature does this all the time. Out with the old, in with the new.
While we might think Capital is in a symbiotic relationship with humans on top, I think the tables have turned. People ignored the predatory nature of this symbiote for centuries because it was just feeding on colored people and lands, and the poor and landless in Europe, and because it gave out so many trinkets and benefits, which were surely going to trickle down. But now it’s devouring everything and everyone. Not just our lives now, but every unborn life to come.
Like Spiderman, we need to blast this thing off before it’s too late, but there’s no Mr. Fantastic, it’s just us. And we’re all just trying to put food on the table, we each depend on a symbiotic relationship with Capital for basic survival, and so—like colonized peoples for centuries—we administer our own doom.
We think we wear suits to work, but in truth, the suits are wearing us. We think we are living in Capitalism, but in truth, Capitalism is living in us. Like Peter Parker fighting his suits, we can sleepwalk into oblivion, or ‘get away from these monsters before they kill us’.
I’ve been writing further about this Capital as AI idea here.