Deleuze and capitalism: an overview

In this paper, I will provide a brief overview of Deleuze’s notion of capitalism. In order to do this, I will use a resource that has seldom been used to this effect, in spite of its importance, namely Deleuze’s first recorded course called “ Appareil d’État et Machine de Guerre ” (“ State Apparatus and War Machine ”), which was professed between 1979 and 1980[1] and which focuses, among other things, on the theme of capitalism.


The notion of capitalism is central to Deleuze’s social and political critique. It is a core concept of two of his most important works, the “ Anti-Oedipus ” and “ A Thousand Plateaus ”, which compose the famous opus entitled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia”.

In this paper, I will provide a brief overview of Deleuze’s notion of capitalism. In order to do this, I will use a resource that has seldom been used to this effect, in spite of its importance, namely Deleuze’s first recorded course called “ Appareil d’État et Machine de Guerre ” (“ State Apparatus and War Machine ”), which was professed between 1979 and 1980[1] and which focuses, among other things, on the theme of capitalism.

In this course, Deleuze offers two general approaches to the notion of capitalism: one historical, the other conceptual. We will examine both.


1. The historical approach of capitalism

Deleuze frames the problem of capitalism with the following question: why is it that capitalism appeared in Europe in the 18th century, and not, say, in China in the 12th century? In itself, this question highlights the fact that for Deleuze, a phenomenon like capitalism is not the consequence of a determined causal chain, but rather the actualization of a potential in a given context, within which a conjunction of specific decoded fluxes then creates what we call capitalism.

The context in which capitalism appears is the form called the “ nation-state ”, which is distinct from earlier forms such as the archaic empire or the medieval city-state. Why did capitalism not appear in these earlier forms? Because, Deleuze argues, archaic empires and city-states did not possess the two elements that make capitalism possible: the concept of private property, which is essential for the creation and expansion of capital, and the material resources that are necessary to annex the war machine. Because of its legal structure and material resources, the nation-state is the only social form that can guarantee private property while remaining prosperous enough to annex the war machine.

Note that in this context, the “ war machine ” is a philosophical concept defined as the multiplicity that conjures any form of centralized state. While the nation-state evolves in a so-called “striped space” (“espace strié”), the war machine, famously dubbed “nomadic”, evolves in a “ smooth space ” (“ espace lisse ”). The nomads of the war machine are in conflict with the sedentary state apparatus whose function it is to capture anything external to it, including, of course, the nomadic war machine. Historically, this capture was achieved by the nation-state.

Hence, when the centralized state apparatus, with its private property laws, becomes prosperous enough to capture the nomadic multiplicity of the war machine, the context is set for capitalism to appear.

Two distinct types of fluxes must be put in conjunction, in the context of the nation-state, for capitalism to appear. These so-called “ decoded fluxes ” are the necessary and sufficient conditions for capitalism, namely: the availability of a new form of workforce, the so-called “ naked worker ”, and the abstraction of wealth.

Note that a flux is an event (as opposed to a state), and it is said to be “ decoded ” because it crosses a defined threshold : in archaic empires and city-states, work and wealth were strictly coded in the sense that they were part of an explicit set of customs and laws maintained by the emperor or ruler ; in the nation-state, work and wealth are decoded, they reach a new level of abstraction, and their encounter forms something new: capitalism. As we will see, decoded labor becomes “ wage-earning ”, and wealth becomes subjective through speculation.

Following Marx’s analysis, Deleuze explains that in 18th century Europe, the worker is irremediably torn away from the land which he was cultivating. This is due, notably, to the fact that European serfdom is definitively abolished. From this moment, the worker becomes “ naked ”, meaning that he is not a slave or a serf anymore, but rather the possessor of a purely abstract form of labor which he exchanges for a wage: he stops being a peasant attached to a land and he becomes part of the proletariat.

The second decoded flux is the apparition of abstract wealth. According to Deleuze, who uses Marx’s analysis again, abstract wealth appeared when the first capitalists began to buy land when it was cheap and sell it when it was expensive—i.e., speculation. In other words, what became of importance for the first capitalists was not the objective value of a piece of land, but rather its abstract or perceived value.

This is a good illustration of the famous concept of “ deterritorialization ”, by which the territory, or land, acquires its value because of factors that are distinct from its objective worth. Hence, if a piece of land is coveted by several potential buyers for any reason, its value increases regardless of its productive potential: this is how, in concise terms, wealth became an abstraction.

Capitalism thrives on two opposite models of nation-states, according to Deleuze. Namely, the tyrannical state such as is found in the third world, and the social-democratic state, such as is found in the first world. It is through these two “models of realization” that capitalism finds a way to spread itself and create, sometimes through violence and coercion, more naked workers and more abstract wealth.

Deleuze mentions an interesting example of the tendency of nation-states to limit the decoding of fluxes so as to make sure that capital does not become stateless. At the time of the space exploration endeavor which began in the 1950s, enormous sums of money were invested by NASA for spatial projects, to explore the moon for example. President Eisenhower hence reduced NASA’s budget to make sure that these colossal investments would remain on Earth. In other words, he tried to limit the natural tendency of capitalism to deterritorialize, or decode, fluxes of capital.

According to Deleuze, this is a typical example of the role of the nation-state in a capitalist regime: to reterritorialize fluxes such that capitalism does not decode fluxes ad infinitum. The nation-state in a capitalist regime is the regulatory mechanism that tends to maintain the national character of fluxes of people and merchandise.


2. The concept of capitalism

As the reader may have sensed, capitalism in Deleuze’s sense is an axiomatic system (as opposed to a logical-formal system). The three central axioms of capitalism are that there is an absolute heterogeneity of the capitalist nation-states; production is made for the sake of production ; and the limits of capitalism are immanent to capitalism.

Capitalism has heterogeneous models of realization, namely the tyrannical nation-state and the social-democrat nation-state, and they are distinguished by their mode and ratio of production.

The naked worker provides capitalism with its mode of production, which is exercised through wage-earning.

In turn, abstract wealth defines capitalism's production ratio (“le rapport de production”). Private property in the capitalist sense means that wealth is not characterized specifically (by a piece of land, some real-estate, a certain amount of metal ingots, etc.) but it is defined by abstract rights. The abstract nature of these rights comes from the fact that abstract wealth can be converted, at any time, into a specific resource such as land, money, raw materials, real-estate, means of production, etc. Hence, the production ratio is based on abstract property rights.

As such, there is no obligation for the capitalist mode of production to be the same in every nation-state. In countries which practice quasi-slavery, for instance, the mode of production is not capitalist because people do not receive a proper wage for their work, but the production ratio remains resolutely capitalist in nature, since the added value can be reinvested in machines, land, and other non-human resources.

The fact that there are very different forms of capitalist nation-states throughout the world, from tyranny to social-democracy, does not hinder capitalism: on the contrary, the distinction between production ratio and mode of production guarantees that capitalism will thrive in all cases. This is due to the axiomatic nature of capitalism.

As such, capitalism can add and remove axioms at will: in tyrannical states, there will be a minimal amount of axioms. As Paul Virilio (mentioned by Deleuze) explains, the tyrannical state is not the “ maximum state ”, meaning a state that practices maximal levels of control over the population. It is, on the contrary, the minimum state, meaning a state with a minimal amount of axioms.

In political terms, the fact that the tyrannical state operates on a minimal amount of axioms means, for instance, that there is only one model of normality: no axioms will be added for the ethnic and religious minorities, which are then treated like the majority—a real problem in countries which have characteristic native minorities, for instance. Reversely, the social-democrat state will multiply as much as possible the distinctions between its people along lines of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., thus adding axioms to the system. Both situations are thriving grounds for capitalism.

In economic terms, the tyrannical state will organize a collapse of the interior market, which means the consideration of only two economic variables: the level of cash reserves, and inflation. This means opening up to foreign investments and thus industrializing the country—but merely for the creation of products that are to be exported. By contrast, highly industrialized nations will tend to multiply axioms destined to enhance the interior market. This means encouraging investments in goods and services destined for domestic consumption.

Capitalism adds and removes axioms at will and very quickly. Therefore, the passage between tyranny and social-democracy is permanent, and certain “ second world ” countries like Brazil (at least in the 1980s, at the time of Deleuze’s course) seem to remain in-between, undecided about which way to take.

The fact that capitalism distinguishes between mode of production and production ratio implies that at a certain point, the nature of production evolves: production itself is decoded. Production is not calibrated along the relatively strict laws of supply and demand anymore, but it becomes an end in itself. The capitalist machine begins to produce as much as it can, and it does so blindly.

Finally, the limits of capitalism are immanent to capitalism, meaning that they are not imposed from the outside but are reached when a maximal number of axioms is created. Hence, Deleuze asks: what happens when the capitalist axiomatic system is saturated? In other words : what happens when no more axioms can be added without a loss of consistency in the system?

Here, Deleuze refers to chapter 13 of Marx’s “Captial” called “Tendency of the rate of profit to fall”. This chapter is based on the following idea: the inherent limit of capitalism is immanent to capitalism and is dictated by the fact that capitalism cannot grow without there being a change in the relative proportions of constant capital and variable capital. Namely, constant capital (which is the capital destined to be reinvested in machines, raw materials, etc., i.e. infrastructure, as opposed to variable capital, which serves to pay the wages of workers) becomes more and more important relatively to variable capital, thus leading to an inevitable crisis.

Marx’s famous thesis is that added value comes from variable capital. That is to say, while profit is generated through variable capital, the nature of capitalism is such that in time, the relative proportion of constant capital will increase. This leads to an unavoidable crisis, when relatively less added value is created while more capital is invested in infrastructure.

As a concrete example, consider technological progress : it tends to give more prominence to constant capital to the detriment of variable capital. I.e., more money is invested in ever more performant machines—and less in human labor.

Capitalists, however, tend to argue that the limits of capitalism are extrinsic, not immanent. But this is not the case : the limits of capitalism are immanent, Deleuze argues.

For example, the numerous energy crises that we have witnessed in modern history, notably regarding oil, were well known to Deleuze. Hence, the philosopher explains, while capitalists can pretend that the limits of resources like oil are imposed from the outside, by nature itself as it were, the fact of the matter is that the perceived external limitation of these resources means the relative increase in constant capital, for example in new drilling techniques like fracking (this specific example is not mentionned by Deleuze, NB.), and hence the relative diminishing of variable capital. The energy crisis thus comes from the relative diminishing of variable capital, not from the perceived limits of natural resources.

Another example, though not mentioned by Deleuze, of the relative increase of constant capital over variable capital may be seen in the divergence between wage and productivity that occurred in the mid-1970s, when workers began to be compensated less while becoming more productive thanks to technology. In 2010, productivity had risen by 254 % compared to 1950, while compensation (salary) had risen by about 113 %[2].


3. Is capitalism a form of humanism or is it a modern form of slavery?

When capitalists claim that they are humanists, Deleuze explains, they are literally correct. Indeed, no capitalist has ever mistaken constant capital for variable capital or vice-versa. That is, capitalism has always made a very clear distinction between the human aspect of wealth creation and the necessary investments in infrastructure. As such, capitalists can claim to be humanists.

At the same time, capitalism has always pushed for social subjugation. Which, Deleuze explains, is distinct from servitude. Nonetheless, subjugation to the capitalist machine is a very real phenomenon, in which one takes part following a seemingly personal choice.

However, for Deleuze the problem is not about freedom of choice. While it is true that today we are not subjected by the machine but to the machine, indicating an apparent exercise of free will and hence the existence of a private sphere, the fact of the matter is that subjugation to the machine rests on the relative importance of variable capital, while servitude by the machine is a function of the constant capital.

In other words, the higher the relative importance of variable capital, the more subjugation (not servitude) to the machine, in which free choice, or an appearance of free choice, is maintained. Reversely, the more important constant capital becomes, the more people will be subservient to the machine—and hence, the less private sphere and freedom of choice we will enjoy.

In a time of technological explosion and rapid increase of the proportion of constant capital over variable capital, we should expect, if Deleuze’s hypothesis is correct, an increase in servitude to the technological machine and, as a correlate, the destruction of the private sphere—which, arguably, is already visible in the treatment of private data by big tech corporations.

[1] See my article “ A propos du cours de Gilles Deleuze ”.

[2] On this topic, see the very interesting book by Martin Ford, “ Rise of the robots ” (2015), pp. 34 ff.