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Reflections on Robert Biel's *The Entropy of Capitalism*

At the conclusion of The Communist Necessity I wrote: "the window in which we can make revolution is closing as the world approaches the armageddon promised by the logic of capital."  The intention of this claim was to point out the necessity of organizing in the face of capitalism's depletion of liveable existence, arguing that we needed to get our shit together because, due to capitalism's internal logic, it might be too late to continue waiting until the current mode of production has played its course.  At that time I had not read Robert Biel's The Entropy of Capitalism––though I had helped edit the second edition of his earlier manuscript, Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement––and he was nice enough to write a blurb for the back of The Communist Necessity… I really wish I had read his most recent book, however, considering that The Entropy of Capitalism dove-tailed with the conclusion of my book.

Yep, same picture as last post.  Um… I thought I'd have another post before this review!

For the "window in which we can make revolution" really is closing, as Biel demonstrates in The Entropy of Capitalism.  More significantly, he demonstrates how and why this window is closing: using thermodynamics, Biel articulates the limits of the capitalist system and how it has passed the point of disarticulation, degeneration, and static disintegration.  Without rejecting the mainstays of historical materialist analysis of the capitalist mode of production (i.e. the labour theory of value, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall), he proves this logic by resorting to systems theory.  In some ways this recourse to thermodynamics functions as analogical logic to breathe new life into marxian language that often seems stale; in other ways this filter is not simply analogical or metaphorical––Biel really does intend us to understand capitalism as a closed, thermodynamic system that is moving towards an entropic destiny.

Disappointingly, Entropy was published in 2011 and, amongst the noise of left-wing academic theory, failed to make a significant theoretical signal.  Despite its eventual publication with Haymarket it still fell under the left-wing radar… Maybe this is because we are living in a period where chic theories belong to those who are already established, who have nothing really interesting to say, and whose significance is marked by a degree of obscurantism that seems exciting to those who have the time and wherewithal to bother with academic publications.  When I read this book I was simultaneously reading several books from the Semiotext(e) "interventions" series, particularly Mauricio's Lazzarato's books on the recent crisis, which possessed a larger cache/interest than Biel's Entropy, even though they covered the same terrain… And the fact that the latter dealt with this terrain in a more concrete and systematic manner than the former apparently didn't matter.  We would rather accept vague analyses than critiques that attempt to produce concrete analyses of concrete situations; the latter demand action, the former only academic interest.

It's not just the source material.  Biel has demonstrated his ability to use Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, and others––indeed, the same source material as Lazzarato or even the Tiqqun collective––but in a manner that is actually historically materialist, that is concrete and rigorous.  In Entropy he is not simply playing with a smorgasbord of theory, as these others are doing, but drawing on other traditions to bolster a rigorous analysis of the system as a whole.  It becomes pretty clear that this is the case when, within the first 100 pages of his book, he demolishes Lazzarato's (and others') claim about the "dematerialization" of capital during the recent crisis (where M-M supposedly replaced M-C-M) by pointing out that this supposed dematerialization is, in fact, a rematerialization considering that the material foundation of speculation, virtual, and fictitious capital requires a massive industrial corps in the third world to produce and refine the basis of its materialiazation (i.e. silicon and super-conductors require a more labour intensive process, hence this "virtual capitalism" cannot exist without an intensive labour process that produces the material basis of its circuits).  Even still, he can employ these chic theorists to bolster his claims while pointing out their limitations… Agamben's failure is that he is "eurocentric"––go figure!

But I digress.  The entire problem with The Entropy of Capitalism is that it is difficult to describe.  Unfortunately, the publisher has produced a poor description that makes the book seem uninteresting: thermodynamic systems theory, capitalism and crisis, energy and entropy… I admit that I waited too long to read this book because this description caused me to think it was both niche and extremely daunting.  Thankfully, it is neither.


Entropy is the precise opposite of a "niche" text in that, rather than being about a rarified problematic, it is about a whole bunch of things that are connected to the very large problematic of capitalist crisis. The title sums it up: it is about the entropic nature of capitalism and what this means.  In order to be about this––that is, in order to demonstrate that capitalism is a system that cannot help but lead towards collapse (and here he treats collapse/crisis/catastrophe in the thermodynamic sense where he literally means entropy), Biel is examining environmental crisis, economic crisis, the war on terror, securitization, governance, and an entire host of 21st century capitalist phenomena as part of the same process of entropy––a process inversely determined by the opposite struggle tendencies that, in extremely limited attempts to forestall entropy, capitalism appropriates and distorts.  Not only does he demonstrate how this constellation of phenomena are interlinked, he also manages to say something fresh about them.

The difficulty in trying to summarize this book (and part of the reason why I don't fault the publisher for providing a less erudite description) is that, due to its breadth, it is very difficult to explain Entropy in a succinct manner.  Since Biel had to innovate his approach to political ecology/economy so as to provide a systematic and concrete analysis of capitalism's crisis limits, we lack the language to succinctly summarize this innovation without sounding boring.  To claim, as the back of the book does, that "Biel explores the interaction of social and physical systems, using the conceptual tools of thermodynamics and information," might be generally accurate but: a) it doesn't really give us a coherent picture of what the book is actually doing; b) it sounds kind of boring, or at least borderline dry––but more on this later.

Biel's use of thermodynamics is a way in which to look at a mode of production as a system that breathes new life into old concepts that might seem stale.  Moreover, it does provide a methodology in which to talk about a lot of things as interconnected phemonema.  If the capitalist mode of production is understood as a thermodynamic system, and we can map out its core logic (tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the laws of capitalist accumulation and capitalist reproduction, the class structure, etc.) by examining this system as one that is both social and ecological, then we can also understand how its order cannot help but lead towards a static situation where it uses up its energy margins, fails to regenerate itself, offsets its closed and degenerating logic in "sinks" that hasten its degeneration.

I know I'm summarizing a lot here, and thus simplifying what Biel is trying to do, but that's the problem with a book like this… And I really need to read it again, and return to sections multiple times, to do it justice.  This is not because the book is incoherent (quite the opposite, in fact) but simply that it covers so much terrain that it is very difficult to provide a review that does it justice when there is so, so much I want to talk about, and could go on about for hours, packed into these 350 pages.

Just as an example: the chapter on the war on terror is, by itself, one of the best engagements with the post-9/11 terrorist discourse and imperialist wars.  I could write an entire review about that chapter, treating it as an isolated essay, because there's so much that Biel provides for those of us in the anti-imperialist camp who seek to clarify the meaning of today's imperialism.  And it is not that he is saying anything entirely new, but that he is using new ways to say what the best elements of the anti-imperialist camp have said, and unifying a lot of what this camp has said according to his overall framework.  Which of course, at the same time, makes it difficult to separate this chapter from the book as a whole: what he saying about the war on terror is precisely what he saying about environmental devastation, is what he is saying about the financial collapse, is what he is saying about securitization, is what he is saying about eurocentrism, is what he is saying about capitalist attempts to find (and fail to find) correctives to its degeneration.

Or how about the breadth of empirical examples he mobilizes throughout the book to demonstrate that capitalism is well past the point of senility?  The fact that a single avatar on "Second Life" takes more energy to sustain per year than what a citizen in a developing country uses to actually live per year is something he puts out there but, interested more in the macro problem that produces this, cannot spend time exploring the micro significance.  Or the biofuel industry's supposed "greening" that is in fact an attack on human existence since it uses food to make an alternative to crude oil, thus leading to massacres of third world populations.  Or the fact that it is a popular practice in Texas for people to turn up their air conditioners so as to have log fires.  Or the claim that both the Malthusian and anti-Malthusian arguments about scarcity are incorrect: there is simultaneously not scarcity (yes, this is manufactured by corporations who dump grain into the sea rather than give it away for free) while there also is scarcity (there is only so much of the surrounding environment––both human and non-human––that the capitalist system can "sink" itself into without rendering the basis of human existence obsolete).  Or the debates about Karl Kautsky's theory of "ultra-imperialism" that he mentions briefly as background of his understanding of imperialism that could be a corrective for two strands of current anti-imperialist analyses: i) those who seek to return to Kautsky's theory (i.e. Panitch and Ginden); ii) those who are so afraid of Kautsky's theory that they don't realize that imperialist competition can be mediated, even if temporarily (and possibly to the detriment of human existence), through ascendent US imperialism.

Point being: there's just a lot in this bloody book.  But so what if there's a lot?  If there's too much it might be too daunting, that frightening book you keep on your shelf and leaf through, from time to time, to build up your courage to deal with its contents.


There are two ways in which this kind of book can be daunting: i) by being dry as fuck, a political economy text that is so concrete and filled with empirical examples that it's a chore to read; ii) by being theoretically arcane, seemingly exciting but so detached from reality due to its love of obscurantist jargon that doesn't require any appreciation for the concrete.  Sadly, both of these tendencies often function in an either/or relationship––either you're stuck with the onerous concrete that is so dry that most people who try to read these texts fall asleep before they can figure out what this concrete means, or you're stuck with the exciting realm of confused theoretical engagement that rejects the concrete in favour of a theoretical smorgasbord.  The former is rigorous but boring; the latter is lacksadaisal but exciting.  Then there is the worse combination of the two: something both dry and theoretically opaque.  But Biel's book is the best combination of the two: rigorous and theoretically engaging.

A confession, here… Although I ultimately learn more from those extremely dry political economy texts that nearly put me to sleep––because they are rigorous and appreciate concrete reality––I often prefer to read those half-assed works of theory that spend more time inventing new terms and making up reality than actually engaging with reality.  Of course I end up hating the latter for their failure to, well, account for reality in a rigorous sense ("I'm just going to say stuff about stuff and provide a fancy term that means the stuff I say should be accepted!"), but I still find myself drawn to the concepts they produce.  Marx, after all, produced a conceptual language that was useful in investigating reality and I think it is important to generate new theoretical concepts to account for the fact that reality has changed rather than simply returning, again and again, to terrain that has been made fecund by over-reliance on these once fresh terms.  Case in point: I appreciate political economists such as David Harvey for intervening in a rigorous way so as to protect marxist political economy, but I still find them a chore to read.

Not so with Biel.  Without abandoning the concrete basis of historical materialism he is able, as aforementioned, to summon other elements of radical theory to his project (i.e. Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben) and yet does so without ending up in the kind of theoretical backwater that, for example, most of the authors of the Semiotext(e) interventions series (i.e. Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, Lazzarato, Berardi, Raunig, etc.) find themselves in.  Why?  Because he still has an appreciation for the concrete and academic rigour, but this appreciation is not entirely boring.  (I'm keeping in mind, here, that anything that is slightly academic will of course be found "boring" by people who have been dispossessed of the intellectual privilege to appreciate theoretical/political literacy.)  Hell, Biel even draws on Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the "rhizome" in a useful manner… He does all of this without giving up on the core theses of historical materialism: the concrete is preserved, and and overall rigour determines the way in which he pulls theoretical concepts into his analysis.

Best of all, he is able to throw out new conceptual language that allows us to appreciate his historical materialist foundation, shedding new light on old concepts.  Distilled through his attention to thermodynamics, we are provided with the following (and this is not an exhaustive list) of conceptual periodizations: accumulation regimes, self-propagating chaos machines, exterminism, paraimperialism, cold imperialism, path dependencies, feedback loops, sinks, a regime of regimes… Interested in what these mean?  Read the book.

Most importantly, The Entropy of Capitalism is eminently readable.  To be fair, this readability is premised on a general political literacy, but there is readable and there is readable.  Most radical political texts require a certain level of political literacy––the vast majority of these are still either boring or arcane for even the supposed initiate!  In terms of the latter problem, where texts seem exciting because of their willingness to produce a constellation of new theoretical concepts and creative-seeming engagements of reality, the arcane nature is the result of a delinking from the concrete: while it is correct to recognize that pure empiricism will most probably produce a positivist apprehension of reality––statistics cannot give that epistemic level required to unify crude facts––there is also a tendency to deform reality by not examining empirical reality and hammering the concrete into an idealized theoretical framework.  Entropy avoids this since it is thoroughly grounded, a fact that the reader cannot miss if s/he is reading it simultaneously to any chic piece of theory talking about the same phenomena.

The imminence of catastrophe

In 2013 some journalists were claiming that the state of affairs was sacroscant, that the majority of the global population enjoyed a lifestyle that was unknown to previous generations––that capitalism had indeed made the world better.  At the very least, Biel's book is a corrective to this fantasy because it demonstrates beyond any doubt that capitalism is dragging existence towards extinction and that, for the world as a whole, capitalism is ruining everything on a greater level than ever before.  He's even able to account for these myopic reports of capitalism's sanctity, explaining their ideological deficiencies.  Indeed, reading this book makes the claims in the aforelinked article seem extremely silly… How in the holy hells any journalist could claim that things were better when the divide between rich and poor was increasing by all available statistics, when more wars were proliferating, when the life world was being further depleted, when climate change was becoming more severe, and when entire crops were being turned into biofuel at the expense of poor people having access to food is either willfully ignorant or beyond cruel.

Although I have some lingering questions about the suggestions of organization and strategy Biel proposes at the end of Entropy (they can be read as an endorsement of an autonomist style practice, though this is only one reading), or some of the claims he makes about China vis-a-vis imperialism (it is unclear whether he thinks China is a nascent imperialist power), these are minor problems (if they are that) in what is ultimately a very thorough and masterful work.

One thing that struck me during my reading of this book, over and over again, was how its analysis of capitalism's systemic limits was relevant to so many conversations and events I would encounter.  Like when I walked into a packed bar where a spectacular boxing match in Las Vegas, between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, was being broadcast and all I could see was the entropic character of contemporary capitalism: a spectacle which was a "sink" of billions of dollars, in a city that is a metaphor of the worst capitalist accumulation regime (a city that, in the words of Mike Davis, exists against both ecological and social nature), between two colonized bodies, complete with a jingoism that all is well with the imperialist world order.

Most importantly, though, is the sense of the imminence (and immanence) of the "socialism or barbarism" maxim that Biel conveys: capitalism's systemic decadence truly is in danger of ravaging the life world, and may even succeed in producing a "Mad Max" scenario no matter how hard some of its less "hawkish" ideologues might try to keep it "sane" by appropriating (and containing) the creativity from the resistant margins, if we don't get our shit together.  And when I think of so many people who know that capitalism must go, but who are content only to write about it or participate in the same styles of practice that have done nothing to really challenge the system, I feel that they just don't know what's at stake.  Or if they do, they have responded with the wrong answer to the right question.  On this last point I might part ways with Biel if his concept of resistant assemblages means the autonomist/movementist solution to the problem––where multiple rebel movements just add up and produce the necessary tipping point––because, as I argued in my book, this catastrophic reality should really force us to think through the necessity of communism, the necessary steps required to wrench history away from its current drive towards armageddon, that we have learned through history.  In this context, simply participating in disconnected prefigurative politics in the hope that they will add up out of fear of some enclosed, top-down organizational strategy will not help us overcome this manifold crisis of capitalism; it has already delayed things for decades.


  1. the question remains - what is to be done?
    It doesn't seem possible for a vanguard party to gain hegemony and take on the state and win. or at least it seems unlikely.

    We need a left/right red/brown alliance against the extreme centre and international zionism.

    1. No, I'm sorry. The right is the danger since fascism is always lurking behind capitalism. There is not "international zionist conspiracy" but imperialism-capitalism, zionism being a settler-colonial ideology that functions quite well within the imperialist camp. There is no such thing as an "extreme centre"… liberals are capitalists and rightists are capitalist reactionaries, end of story. In times of crisis capitalism becomes more and more fascist… anyone who would ever unite with the "right" is a class collaborator.

      And since I don't tolerate fascists on here, your next comment of this kind will be deleted since it is clear your understanding of reality leaves much to desire and you will not be able to contribute anything useful to a political discussion.

  2. Sounds like an excellent book that I’m definitely going to bump up to the top of my reading list but it also seems to reify some existing fears.

    This is without a doubt poor form but despite being a communist I’ve more or less come to terms with the fact that we’re all basically doomed. Like you said “capitalism is dragging existence towards extinction and that, for the world as a whole, capitalism is ruining everything on a greater level than ever before.” Despite this the radical left remains impotent; refusing to act, refusing to organize and refusing to engage with capitalism (or even at the very least issues of ‘class’) on any meaningful level.

    Instead the communists I like are fixated on languishing in historical semantics, treating 100 year old Marxist interpretations of Capital as immutable dogma (as Stalin labelled them Exegetes and Talmudists) all the while refusing to engage with the concrete issues of capitalism in the now.

    And the communists I dislike are, at best, tailing whatever moderately leftist ‘movement’ is in the news today, desperately handing out pamphlets to whoever will read them; and at worst they’re out right rejecting class struggle in favour of petty-bourgeois identity politics that have been wrenched from any semblance of a material basis and are instead part of some pathetic leftist commodification of oppression wherein they’ll adopt the oppression of whatever group is in chic in some desperate attempt to provide the illusion of uniqueness and individuality.

    I’m fully aware apocalyptic cries of ‘doom’ are nothing new however it seems almost inevitable to fall into this mindset when confronted with the reality of the contemporary left.

    1. Yes, well on the bright side there is an element in the book that, despite its examination of the negative aspects of capitalism, that does indicate the significance of anti-systemic struggles that are always present and the need to link them together.

  3. What do you think of various ideas going around about 'collapse'; preparing for the eventual collapse of capitalism rather than attempting to take on the state in the Leninist way.

    1. I think that's a terrible and nihilistic response. The truth is that this collapse won't reach the "gated communities" of the first world for some time (for reasons that Biel explains), and that it is only a collapse because of the logic of capitalism (it won't happen with a better social system), but in the mean time means extermination for many peoples in the third world. So this kind of response is basically an acceptance of genocidal logic and an endorsement of the worst kind of "exterminist" capitalist thinking.

    2. The CPA (M-L) recently had a query from a reader not dissimilar to the query above. You can access the reply to it here: : . And you may also be interested in references to Briel's book in this response to a TV documentary exposure of labour hire companies working in the food industry in Australia: .

    3. Thanks for the info.

      On another note: I don't know very much about the CPA(M-L), or about the anti-revisionist movement in Australia. Now you must made me curious to read about the CPA(M-L) on the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online.

    4. And thanks for writing The Communist Necessity - a very good read!

  4. What do you think of the Situationists?

    1. I used to be into them fifteen years ago, but this question (as it stands) has no relation whatsoever to this post.

  5. What do you think of accelarationism?
    Is accelarating capitalism, speeding up its tendencies thus leading to its collapse, something we should try to do?

    1. I think it's a terrible reassertion of a productive forces understanding of capitalism. Without getting into much detail, here, Biel's book is useful in demonstrating the poverty of this approach because it demonstrates that capitalism is already accelerated and this acceleration means the collapse of existence itself. Accelerationism means an acceptance of third world genocide, which is why the right accelerationists (represented by Nick Land and his ilk) are at least less hypocritical than their "left" counterparts who, despite their progressive claims, don't seem to understand what the contradictions of capitalism actually mean, when accelerated.

  6. you seem to have a problem with autonomist politics. I suspect that many people who call themselves Maoists have something of an authoritarian personality, and a fetish for state control and heirarchy.

    Biel is well worth reading, thankfully, he doesn't endorse the dead end of Maoism.

    1. Actually I have a very strong appreciation of autonomist Marxism, particularly the work of Harry Cleaver, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and the young Negri. Obviously I have a difference with their theories of organization, but this has nothing to do with my supposed "authoritarian personality" or some "fetish for state control and heirarchy." These aren't arguments but trollish rhetorical insults. As a Maoist, while I think seizing state control through a party apparatus is necessary I also believe that the masses can and should struggle against this party during the period of socialism. Personal insults that are based on a psychologization are not only inappropriate, they reveal that you might have nothing useful to add to a conversation.

      Moreover, my problem with Lazzarrato is the same problem I have with a lot of "smorgasbord" theory. It's not that he's an autonomist it's just that he ends up wandering out into a speculation untied from the concrete reality: he can't do social investigation very well so he makes conjectures that are just untrue. And yet, at the same time, there is a lot I appreciate with his *Governing By Debt* when it doesn't lapse into the kind of thinking that isn't thorough and rigorous.

      In any case, maybe you should do a little more investigation before popping unto a comment string, lobbing insults, and making your own asinine conjectures. To claim that Maoism is a "dead end" is amusing, particularly since your comment represents the very dead end of critical thought.

  7. CD: I accidentally deleted your comment about The Entropy of Capitalism, that made a comparison to Amin's Implosion of Capitalism, when I was deleting some of the normal troll crap. I had only half read it before I realized its box was checked as well and it disappeared with the bad comments. If it's not a problem, would you mind writing it again? So sorry!

    1. You're slipping up JMP, looks like the trolls really are getting to you! Ha, it's cool, half of the post was some ranty stuff about something that had happened to me that day I wanted to get off my chest- this actually gives me a chance to make it more coherent, to look on the bright side.

      I thought it was interesting to compare The Entropy of Capitalism and The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism because of the completely different way that they handled similar topics. Even taking the difference in length into account, Amin's analysis was basically uninsightful and shallow, even where he was right; I didn't actually feel like I understood how capitalism was 'imploding' any better after I read the book. So, for the reasons you've already explained, I feel that Biel's book was basically what I was hoping Amin's book would have been, and of course a lot more.

      I wish that Biel had spent more time talking about Gramscian concepts in the last chapter, because I think they're really important for drawing the correct practical conclusions from his work- the war of position especially. Another random thought related to Gramsci- I remember how he talked about the rural bourgeoisie being an important base of support for fascism; maybe this is related to the relatively high entropy associated with capitalist food production? This opens up some interesting possibilities for using the concepts Biel uses to make class analysis. This work in general got me interested in the connections that could be made between the concepts used by various 'subaltern' intellectuals, people like Lukacs, Ilyenkov and Althusser in addition to Gramsci and Biel, to improve historical materialist analysis both through the concepts they already developed and for better understanding how to develop new concepts/apply concepts from other traditions in a Marxist manner.

      Now for what had happened to me yesterday... the best way I could sum it up is that Jesse Jackson tried to brainwash me- and no I'm not joking, though maybe exaggerating a bit. He came to talk at my school because of this $5 million grant its receiving, which right away is kinda suspicious since he's not the one giving all that money away anyway, since that'd be like half his net worth. So me and some of my friends thought it would be funny to check it out, I figured maybe he would take questions and I would get to blast him about being a comprador or whatever. But when he was speaking it started to get weird pretty fast. He was doing this religious-style chant where he would have the audience repeat what he said about every 3 syllables, and at first I thought it was some silly motivational stuff, since he was talking about the generic "we will overcome" and "black lives matter" stuff (as if he gave a shit), but suddenly he switched over to the economic relationship between Oakland and Silicon Valley, about how Oakland would/should be basing itself around producing things for SV. Basically he tried to hypnotise us with corporate propaganda, and it seemed to be working on a scary amount of people (though I suspect classes that the administrators thought would be more gullible were chosen to go see him). I'm sure whatever corporations in Silicon Valley that gave my school that money gave Jesse a nice amount as well... slimy motherfucker.

      So yeah, that was it. Hope you enjoyed reading it twice as much as you would have before.


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