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Avengers: Infinity War

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Avengers: Infinity War is huge, and long, and has lots of really spectacular explosions and battle sequences. I was never bored, but then again was never really into it, however I could easily understand why someone else would be. Its special effects are on the cutting edge. Its explosions and flying debris look pretty real. According to Wikileaks, the film cost somewhere between $300 million and $400 million to produce. You only need to watch Infinity's first 10 minutes to see how easy it would have been for its makers to lose track of a few millions here (the destruction of the Edinburgh Waverley railway station) and a few millions there (the helicopter crashing into a Manhattan tower).

The point of this post is not to review the film, which the Stranger's film critic Andrew Wright has already admirably done here—he describes it as "a lurching, ungainly colossus of a blockbuster, with far too many characters and storylines stretching across a series of planets that resemble 1970s prog-rock album covers."

My thing is to analyze the reasoning of the film's villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin). He wants to eliminate 50 percent of all major animal life forms in the universe. His reason? Overpopulation. There are too many large-sized animals, and not enough resources, and this has caused an imbalance. The eradication of 50 percent of these animals will restore harmony in the universe.

This kind of thinking is called Malthusian.

Many might miss the mode of Thanos's thinking because his massive body is far more impressive than his ideas. But if we listen to his reasoning, we will hear the philosophy of the 19th century clergyman and political economist, Thomas Malthus. In Malthus's day, the big question was, one: Where did wealth come from? (The question of where poverty came from was considered dumb.) And, two: What could harm or destroy this very precious thing—wealth? One idea, proposed in 1815 by French political economist J.C.L. Simonde de Sismondi, was, oddly enough, overproduction; he wrote: "Europe has reached the point of possessing in all its parts an industry and a manufacture superior to its needs." Yes, even way back then, it was known that a capitalist could produce too much stuff and induce a wealth-destroying and misery-causing economic crisis. Another idea, was overpopulation. This idea was presented and popularized by Malthus in 1778.

But whereas the reverend saw this problem of overpopulation from the perspective of the "precious stone set in a silver sea" (aka, England), Infinity's Thanos sees it from the perspective of the ALL ("sub specie aeternitatis"). There is too much goddamn life in the universe, and something serious and final has to be done about it.

His solution?

Thanos feels he will do the universe a very huge favor if he massively reduces the population of its animal or animal-like organisms. Trees and plants, the primary producers, are not the problem. The universe cannot sustain, in the cosmic trophic scheme of things, the trillions of secondary and tertiary consumers. If they continue to multiply, the quality of life in the universe will only get worse. Galactic civilizations will collapse into chaos. But how can one creature, Thanos, kill such a great number of large-living things, some of whom even have super-powers? Apparently, he needs the total or unified power of the six forces that formed when the universe was born.

Now, if we go back to earth, back to our times of climate change and increasing weather-related catastrophes, we find Thanos' Malthusianism espoused by a faction of the left—though the solution for them is not death control but birth control. The point about over-population is nevertheless shared. But were does this feeling of too many humans come from? Why do so many Western liberals think this way? I blame the leading proponents of the 1960s and '70s environmental movement. They made the bad mistake of positing not capitalism, but the human animal as the ultimate villain. For them, humans consumed too much, fucked too much, made more humans too much. Thanos would immediately understand and praise every page of the Population Bomb, a 1968 best-selling book by Stanford University professor Paul R. Ehrlich. Thanos would make it required reading on his planet. That Malthusian, human-hating book has been baked into a large section of the left.

But humans as humans are not responsible for the crisis, which is a good thing because humans as humans cannot change (or change quickly). But human culture can and does and should change. Culture is like putty. It alters in form and adapts to changed circumstances very rapidly. The confusion is that we associate capitalism with human sociality (our nature), and not with human hyper-culture (the products of our nature). The social is the animal, and as such is fixed; capitalism is cultural, and so is not fixed. Though culture arises from the social, it often has the misleading appearance of the latter arising from it (I call this illusion ideology). A German school of critical theory in the late 1960s correctly fixated on this danger and described as a perversion of reality.

Indeed, many on the left (and even I have been guilty of this) are calling the current epoch the Anthropocene. But this only continues a prognosis of the crisis that blames humans as human (or the human as animal, a social animal), and not a historically specific economic system. French economist François Chesnais makes this point in his important book Finance Capital Today.

He writes:

A mode of production characterised by "the unceasing movement of profit-making, the boundless drive for enrichment" cannot heed a message which calls for an end to growth as it is traditionally understood and a negotiated and planned use of remaining resources. There are convincing reasons for arguing, as does Jason Moore, that the Capitalocene defined as "the historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital" is a more correct term for an ecological successor era to the Holocene than the Anthropocene despite the fact that the latter has received widespread recognition and will be almost impossible to replace.

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By emphasizing humans, and not a historically determined economic system, liberals made a trap for themselves and fell right into it.

Part of Thanos's villainy can be traced back to the way liberals have formulated the environmental crisis. From this point, we see the bad Malthusian reasoning of overpopulation. It blames people (or galactic animals, in the case of Thanos), but not the way people live. Because liberals are seen attacking humans for being humans, the proponents of growth (more jobs and more money) and human flourishing win every time. The left is connected with death panels; and the right with pro-growth and will-positive ideology, which is then associated with and supports "the unceasing movement of profit-making, the boundless drive for enrichment." Money making more money forever. But we do live in a world that's finite, that is limited, that can run out of things humans need. This fact will never, not matter what our ideology, jibe with having an economy (culture, a way of living, a mode of behavior) that is infinite.

If you put all of this together, you will see why the villain in Infinity War is coded as a liberal. But imagine if Thanos simply said to the large-living things of the universe: You must change your ways. Stop eating meat, stop burning the fossils of ancient life; start recycling everything, start using public transportation. This wouldn't be an irrational demand or as dramatic as killing trillions upon trillions; it's not asking a species to change but asking it to change its behavior. Those are two completely different things. The fact of this distinction is lost by the word Anthropocene.

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