An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: The Rise of Capitalism & the Exclusion of Death

In the second of his series of essays on Baudrillard, Andrew Robinson examines how the French thinker saw 'symbolic exchange' giving way to capitalist alienation, and discusses Baudrillard's intriguing proposition that alienation stems from the social exclusion of death.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, March 30, 2012 12:00 - 0 Comments



In the first part of his 14-part introduction to Baudrillard, political theorist Andrew Robinson explored the French thinker’s concept of ‘symbolic exchange’ as the basis for a non-alienated social life. In this second part, Robinson examines how Baudrillard saw symbolic exchange giving way to capitalist alienation, and discusses Baudrillard’s intriguing proposition that alienation stems from the social exclusion of death.

The passage to capitalism

Symbolic exchange – or rather, its suppression – plays a central role in the emergence of capitalism.   Baudrillard sees a change happening over time.  Regimes based on symbolic exchange (differences are exchangeable and related) are replaced by regimes based on equivalence (everything is, or means, the same).  Ceremony gives way to spectacle, immanence to transcendence.

Baudrillard’s view of capitalism is derived from Marx’s analysis of value.  Baudrillard accepts Marx’s view that capitalism is based on a general equivalent.  Money is the general equivalent because it can be exchanged for any commodity.  In turn, it expresses the value of abstract labour-time.  Abstract labour-time is itself an effect of the regimenting of processes of life, so that different kinds of labour can be compared.

Capitalism is derived from the autonomisation or separation of economics from the rest of life.  It turns economics into the ‘reality-principle’.  It is a kind of sorcery, connected in some way to the disavowed symbolic level.  It subtly shifts the social world from an exchange of death with the Other to an eternal return of the Same.

Capitalism functions by reducing everything to a regime based on value and the production of value.  To be accepted by capital, something must contribute value.  This creates an immense regime of social exchange.  However, this social exchange has little in common with symbolic exchange.  It ultimately depends on the mark of value itself being unexchangeable.  Capital must be endlessly accumulated.  States must not collapse.  Capitalism thus introduces the irreversible into social life, by means of accumulation.

According to Baudrillard, capitalism rests on an obsession with the abolition of death.  Capitalism tries to abolish death through accumulation.  It tries to ward off ambivalence (associated with death) through value (associated with life).  But this is bound to fail.  General equivalence – the basis of capitalism – is itself the ever-presence of death.  The more the system runs from death, the more it places everyone in solitude, facing their own death.  Life itself is fundamentally ambivalent.  The attempt to abolish death through fixed value is itself deathly.

Accumulation also spreads to other fields.  The idea of progress, and linear time, comes from the accumulation of time, and of stockpiles of the past.  The idea of truth comes from the accumulation of scientific knowledge.  Biology rests on the separation of living and non-living.  According to Baudrillard, such accumulations are now in crisis.  For instance, the accumulation of the past is undermined, because historical objects now have to be concealed to be preserved – otherwise they will be destroyed by excessive consumption.  Value is produced from the residue or remainder of an incomplete symbolic exchange.  The repressed, market value, and sign-value all come from this remainder.  To destroy the remainder would be to destroy value.

Capitalist exchange is always based on negotiation, even when it is violent.  The symbolic order does not know this kind of equivalential exchange or calculation.  And capitalist extraction is always one-way.  It amounts to a non-reversible aggression in which one act (of dominating or killing) cannot be returned by the other.

It is also this regime which produces scarcity – Baudrillard here endorses Sahlins’ argument.  Capitalism produces the Freudian “death drive”, which is actually an effect of the capitalist culture of death.  For Baudrillard, the limit to both Marx and Freud is that they fail to theorise the separation of the domains they study – the economy and the unconscious.  It is the separation which grounds their functioning, which therefore only occurs under the regime of the code.

Baudrillard also criticises theories of desire, including those of Deleuze, Foucault, Freud and Lacan.  He believes desire comes into existence based on repression.  It is an effect of the denial of the symbolic.  Liberated energies always leave a new remainder; they do not escape the basis of the unconscious in the remainder.  Baudrillard argues that indigenous groups do not claim to live naturally or by their desires – they simply claim to live in societies.  This social life is an effect of the symbolic.  Baudrillard therefore criticises the view that human liberation can come about through the liberation of desire.  He thinks that such a liberation will keep certain elements of the repression of desire active.

Baudrillard argues that the processes which operate collectively in indigenous groups are repressed into the unconscious in metropolitan societies.  This leads to the autonomy of the psyche as a separate sphere.  It is only after this repression has occurred that a politics of desire becomes conceivable.  He professes broad agreement with the Deleuzian project of unbinding energies from fixed categories and encouraging flows and intensities.  However, he is concerned that capitalism can recuperate such releases of energy, disconnecting them so they can eventually reconnect to it.  Unbinding and drifting are not fatal to capitalism, because capitalism itself unbinds things, and re-binds things which are unbound.  What is fatal to it is, rather, reversibility.

Capitalism continues to be haunted by the forces it has repressed.  Separation does not destroy the remainder.  Quite the opposite.  The remainder continues to exist, and gains power from its repression.  This turns the double or shadow into something unquiet, vampiric, and threatening.  It becomes an image of the forgotten dead.  Anything which reminds us of the repressed aspects excluded from the subject is experienced as uncanny and threatening.  It becomes the ‘obscene’, which is present in excess over the ‘scene’ of what is imagined.

This is different from theories of lack, such as the Lacanian Real.  Baudrillard’s remainder is an excess rather than a lack.  It is the carrier of the force of symbolic exchange.

Modern culture dreams of radical difference.  The reason for this is that it exterminated radical difference by simulating it.  The energy of production, the unconscious, and signification all in fact come from the repressed remainder.  Our culture is dead from having broken the pact with monstrosity, with radical difference.

The West continues to perpetrate genocide on indigenous groups.  But for Baudrillard, it did the same thing to itself first – destroying its own indigenous logics of symbolic exchange.  Indigenous groups have also increasingly lost the symbolic dimension, as modern forms of life have been imported or imposed.  This according to Baudrillard produces chronic confusion and instability.

Gift-exchange is radically subversive of the system.  This is not because it is rebellious.  Baudrillard thinks the system can survive defections or exodus.  It is because it counterposes a different ‘principle of sociality’ to that of the dominant system.  According to Baudrillard, the mediations of capitalism exist so that nobody has the opportunity to offer a symbolic challenge or an irreversible gift.  They exist to keep the symbolic at bay.  The affective charge of death remains present among the oppressed, but not with the ‘properly symbolic rhythm’ of immediate retaliation.

The Church and State also exist based on the elimination of symbolic exchange.  Baudrillard is highly critical of Christianity for what he takes to be a cult of suffering, solitude and death.  He sees the Church as central to the destruction of earlier forms of community based on symbolic exchange.

Baudrillard seems to think that earlier forms of the state and capitalism retained some degree of symbolic exchange, but in an alienated, partially repressed form.  For instance, the imaginary of the ‘social contract’ was based on the idea of a sacrifice – this time of liberty for the common good.  In psychoanalysis, symbolic exchange is displaced onto the relationship to the master-signifier.  I haven’t seen Baudrillard say it directly, but the impression he gives is that this is a distorted, authoritarian imitation of the original symbolic exchange.  Nonetheless, it retains some of its intensity and energy.  Art, theatre and language have worked to maintain a minimum of ceremonial power.

It is the reason older orders did not suffer the particular malaise of the present.  It is easy to read certain passages in Baudrillard as if he is bemoaning the loss of these kinds of strong significations.  This is initially how I read Baudrillard’s work.  But on closer inspection, this seems to be a misreading.  Baudrillard is nostalgic for repression only to the extent that the repressed continued to carry symbolic force as a referential.  He is nostalgic for the return of symbolic exchange, as an aspect of diffuse, autonomous, dis-alienated social groups.


Death plays a central role in Baudrillard’s theory, and is closely related to symbolic exchange.  According to Baudrillard, what we have lost above all in the transition to alienated society is the ability to engage in exchanges with death.

Death should not be seen here in purely literal terms.  Baudrillard specifies early on that he does not mean an event affecting a body, but rather, a form which destroys the determinacy of the subject and of value – which returns things to a state of indeterminacy.  Baudrillard certainly discusses actual deaths, risk-taking, suicide and so on.  But he also sees death figuratively, in relation to the decomposition of existing relations, the “death” of the self-image or ego, the interchangeability of processes of life across different categories.  For instance, eroticism or sexuality is related to death, because it leads to fusion and communication between bodies.  Sexual reproduction carries shades of death because one generation replaces another.  Baudrillard’s concept of death is thus quite similar to Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque.  Death refers to metamorphosis, reversibility, unexpected mutations, social change, subjective transformation, as well as physical death.

According to Baudrillard, indigenous groups see death as social, not natural or biological.  They see it as an effect of an adversarial will, which they must absorb.  And they mark it with feasting and rituals.  This is a way of preventing death from becoming an event which does not signify.  Such a non-signifying event is absolute disorder from the standpoint of symbolic exchange.  For Baudrillard, the west’s idea of a biological, material death is actually an idealist illusion, ignoring the sociality of death.

Poststructuralists generally maintain that the problems of the present are rooted in the splitting of  life into binary oppositions.  For Baudrillard, the division between life and death is the original, founding opposition on which the others are founded.  After this first split, a whole series of others have been created, confining particular groups – the “mad”, prisoners, children, the old, sexual minorities, women and so on – to particular segregated situations.  The definition of the ‘normal human’ has been narrowed over time.  Today, nearly everyone belongs to one or another marked or deviant category.

The original exclusion was of the dead – it is defined as abnormal to be dead.  “You livies hate us deadies”.  This first split and exclusion forms the basis, or archetype, for all the other splits and exclusions – along lines of gender, disability, species, class, and so on.

This discrimination against the dead brings into being the modern experience of death.  Baudrillard suggests that death as we know it does not exist outside of this separation between living and dead.  The modern view of death is constructed on the model of the machine and the function.  A machine either functions or it does not.  The human body is treated as a machine which similarly, either functions or does not.  For Baudrillard, this misunderstands the nature of life and death.

The modern view of death is also necessitated by the rise of subjectivity.  The subject needs a beginning and an end, so as to be reducible to the story it tells.  This requires an idea of death as an end.  It is counterposed to the immortality of social institutions.  In relation to individuals, ideas of religious immortality is simply an ideological cover for the real exclusion of the dead.  But institutions try to remain truly immortal.  Modern systems, especially bureaucracies, no longer know how to die – or how to do anything but keep reproducing themselves.

The internalisation of the idea of the subject or the soul alienates us from our bodies, voices and so on.  It creates a split, as Stirner would say, between the category of ‘man’ and the ‘un-man’, the real self irreducible to such categories.  It also individualises people, by destroying their actual connections to others.  The symbolic haunts the code as the threat of its own death.  The society of the code works constantly to ward off the danger of irruptions of the symbolic.

The mortal body is actually an effect of the split introduced by the foreclosure of death.  The split never actually stops exchanges across the categories.  In the case of death, we still ‘exchange’ with the dead through our own deaths and our anxiety about death.  We no longer have living, mortal relationships with objects either.  They are reduced to the instrumental.  It is as if we have a transparent veil between us.

Symbolic exchange is based on a game, with game-like rules.  When this disappears, laws and the state are invented to take their place.  It is the process of excluding, marking, or barring which allows concentrated or transcendental power to come into existence.  Through splits, people turn the other into their ‘imaginary’.  For instance, westerners invest the “Third World” with racist fantasies and revolutionary aspirations; the “Third World” invests the west with aspirational fantasies of development.  In separation, the other exists only as an imaginary object.  Yet the resultant purity is illusory.  For Baudrillard, any such marking or barring of the other brings the other to the core of society.  “We all” become dead, or mad, or prisoners, and so on, through their exclusion.

The goal of ‘survival’ is fundamental to the birth of power.  Social control emerges when the union of the living and the dead is shattered, and the dead become prohibited.  The social repression of death grounds the repressive socialisation of life.  People are compelled to survive so as to become useful.  For Baudrillard, capitalism’s original relationship to death has historically been concealed by the system of production, and its ends.  It only becomes fully visible now this system is collapsing, and production is reduced to operation.

In modern societies, death is made invisible, denied, and placed outside society.  For example, elderly people are excluded from society.  People no longer expect their own death.  As a result, it becomes unintelligible.  It keeps returning as ‘nature which will not abide by objective laws’.  It can no longer be absorbed through ritual.  Western society is arranged so death is never done by someone else, but always attributable to ‘nature’.

This creates a bureaucratic, judicial regime of death, of which the concentration camp is the ultimate symbol.  The system now commands that we must not die – at least not in any old way.  We may only die if law and medicine allow it.  Hence for instance the spread of health and safety regulations.  On the other hand, murder and violence are legalised, provided they can be re-converted into economic value.  Baudrillard sees this as a regressive redistribution of death.  It is wrested from the circuit of social exchanges and vested in centralised agencies.

For Baudrillard, there is not a social improvement here.  People are effectively being killed, or left to die, by a process which never treats them as having value.  On the other hand, even when capitalism becomes permissive, inclusive and tolerant, it still creates an underlying anxiety about being reduced to the status of an object or a marionette.  This appears as a constant fear of being manipulated.  The slave remains within the master’s dialectic for as long as ‘his’ life or death serves the reproduction of domination.

A fatal ontology?

In Fatal Strategies, Baudrillard suggests an ontology which backs up his analysis of death.  The world itself is committed to extremes and to radical antagonism.  It is bored of meaning.  There is an ‘evil genie’, a principle of Evil which constantly returns in the form of seduction.  Historical processes are really pushed forward by this principle.  All energy comes from fission and rupture.  These cannot be replaced by production or mechanical processes.  There is no possibility of a collective project or a coherent society, only the operation of such forces.  Every order exists only to be transgressed and dismantled.

The world is fundamentally unreal.  This leads to a necessity of irony, which is to say, the slippage of meaning.  Historically, the symbolic was confined to the metaphysical.  It did not affect the physical world.  But with the rise of models, with the physical world derived increasingly from the code, the physical world is brought within the symbolic.  It becomes reversible.  The rational principle of linear causality collapses.  The world is, and always remains, enigmatic.

People will give for seduction or for simulation what they would never give for quality of life.  Advertising, fashion, gambling and so on liberate ‘immoral energies’ which hark back to the magical or archaic gamble on the power of thought against the power of reality.  Neoliberalism is in some ways an ultimate release of such diabolical forces.  People will look for an ecstatic excess of anything – even boredom or oppression.

In this account, the principle of evil becomes the only fixed point.  Desire is not inescapable.  What is inescapable is the object and its seduction, its ‘principle of evil’.  The object at once submits to law and breaks it in practice, mocking it.  Its own “game” cannot be discerned.  It is a poor conductor of the symbolic order but a good conductor of signs.  The drive towards spectacles, illusions and scenes is stronger than the desire for survival.

[Part three will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]


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