4 December, 2023
Humanism and capitalism
Vasile Mihalache during the literary festival in Ruse, 12 October 2023, and the translator Vladimir Mitev (source: Momchil Mihailov-Momo)

Daniel Clinci and Vasile Mihalache

This text was presented on 12 October 2023 by Vasile Mihalache at the “Reason’s Sleep” literary festival in Ruse, organised by the Elias Canetti International Society at the Canetti House. The authors are Vasile Mihalache and Daniel Clinci from the Romanian Journal of Posthumanist Studies. The text criticises the humanist notion of man at the centre of the world as being closely linked to emerging capitalism in the context of Europe’s colonisation of the world. According to this vision man is white, male, European and bourgeois. People who do not conform to this norm – women, children, peoples of the Global South and workers – are constructed as non-humans (monsters) to be subjugated and exploited. The treatment of animals is similar.

Vasile Mihalache (b. 1985, Bucharest) is co-founder of Post/h/um magazine. Journal of Posthumanist Studies and its editor. He is coordinator of several collections of critical theory and author of articles (especially on posthumanism and the avant-garde) in Caietele Avangardei, Observator cultural, Cultura, Idea, Corner. Football + Society and Post/h/um. He has published a collection of theory as a follow-up to his doctoral thesis Noli me tangere? On Legitimacy and Autonomy in Literature (Tracus Arte, 2013) and two collections of poetry, Dead after Man (Tracus Arte, 2016) and The Creature of All Things (frACTalia, 2020).

Daniel Clinci holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Bucharest and teaches Medical English at Ovidius University in Constanta. He was editor of the now defunct culture magazine Tomis and published the collection Avant-garde and Experiment. From Negative Aesthetics to Postmodern Culture (2014), in addition to dozens of articles, studies, etc. He has translated several books and contributed to various collective collections. He is co-founder of the journal Post/h/um. Journal of posthumanist studies.

“Post/h/um. Journal of Posthumanist Studies” is an independent, open-access academic journal, a completely non-commercial project launched in 2013, which aims to publish in Romanian relevant texts in the fields of critical theory, cultural studies, feminism and especially posthumanism, in order to expand the space for debate on themes and critical resources little discussed in the Romanian institutional environment and to support the development of a Romanian critical vocabulary necessary for the recovery and assimilation of fundamental ideas in the humanities today.

In the 21st century, children in Nigeria search through the mountains of e-waste exported from the West in the hope of finding bits of metal to sell in order to survive. Women in Kenya are digging through piles of broken glass, old toys, plastic sheeting and used syringes in order to find containers to deposit in special bins for oil, flour or vegetables. In Nicaragua, West Africa and the Philippines, banana plantation workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals and become sterile. In the Amazon, jungles are being destroyed to make way for agricultural plantations and cattle pastures, and indigenous people are forced to become wage or itinerant labour. In Poland, the conservative government wants to take possession of women’s wombs and ban abortion, regardless of the consequences. Plastic exported from the United States is burned in Malaysia, where it releases huge quantities of toxic substances into the atmosphere. Mangrove forests on the Colombian Pacific coast are migrating north due to intensive logging and climate change. All these are direct consequences of the humanist-capitalist belief in the supremacy of Man, the rational being who has the capacity (and the destiny) to take possession of nature and exploit it for his own well-being.  

Although certain ideas that would later be regarded as ‘humanist’ or ‘capitalist’ appear in European culture as early as the 14th century, capitalism and humanism develop and become dominant in Western Europe from the second half of the 17th century, when they attempt to answer certain questions about ‘human nature’ and, by extension, about political, social and economic relations in the new world of modernity. At the same time, humanism and capitalism emerge in a historical period when the question of property becomes extremely important for philosophers and economists, echoing wider social changes and a type of individualism whose representatives include important philosophers of the time, such as John Locke – according to whom man is the autonomous individual who takes possession of nature through labour and exploits it for the prosperity of the whole community. In addition/Moreover, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Paris, 1789) lists property among the ‘natural’ rights of man – alongside liberty, security and resistance to oppression. By equating property with liberty and defining man as owner, the 18th century created not only an economic and ideological system, but also a whole set of social and political relations that resulted in the subjugation and exploitation of large categories of propertyless human beings excluded from the category of ‘man’, including women, children, indigenous people in colonies and workers. For the sake of brevity and for methodological reasons, I will discuss in turn (even if, in practice, the network of exploitative and oppressive relations works rather intersectional) these monsters of capitalism-humanism, defined in opposition to Man and thus subjects of his domination: women, children, indigenous people in colonies and workers, leaving room at the end for a related category, non-human animals. 

In the first place, the society of property owners was patriarchal, as feminist theory and gender studies have already shown. Subjected to patriarchal domination since antiquity, man being considered at that time the rational and autonomous being possessing logos, women were defined in relation to and in opposition to man, the embodiment of the human ideal. Without access to resources and property to ensure their autonomy and isolated in the sphere of reproductive work, women continued, even at the height of humanism, to be considered less human, despite the changes brought to Europe by the French Revolution and the granting of citizenship rights to all members of society. Following the model of the 1789 declaration, Olympe de Gouges called, for example, three years later, in the Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens, for the organisation of a national assembly of women and the application of the principles of the French Revolution to them. Also, as Wollstonecraft notes, women were considered irrational, decorative objects with “fascinating graces” even within the bourgeoisie (Wollstonecraft, 1796). Federici also explains that primitive accumulation (the so-called transition to capitalism) further isolated women within reproductive labour, assigning them a key role in the reproduction of the working class (Federici, 2004). Thus, in its evolving perspective on women throughout history, feminism has shown that women have never been considered human in the “true” sense of the word, as this concept was only meant to preserve male power relations and privileges. 

Just as women were defined in relation to men and perceived as everything they were not, the child remained trapped in binary thinking until the second half of the 20th century, and was often excluded from contemporary emancipatory discourses. With a model of the self developed in the West on the basis of Christian tradition, the humanist child has been constructed in a dual relationship with the ‘ideology of adulthood’ (Ashis Nandy, 1987), either as a ‘savage’, chaotic monster to be disciplined and civilised, or as an ‘innocent’ being to be guarded against the immorality of the adult world, especially in terms of sexuality, but always as irrational and lacking autonomy. In fact, it is from these two directions that the image of the humanist child has developed and persists today: generic but unique; undisciplined but innocent; savage but an image of civilisation; monstrous but a man of the future. In the late 17th century, theories of children’s education began to be influenced by ideas about property, as with Locke’s treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). The ultimate aim of education, says Locke, is to create useful adults for society, who pursue the same ends as others, which is why the child must obey the will of the educator in order to know how to obey his or her own will and reason in adulthood. Thus, the status of the child in the age, deprived of the opportunity to develop his individuality, is strikingly similar to the status of other disadvantaged groups, also deprived of access to property. 

Based on another 18th-century ideal, progress, the capitalist-humanist metanarrative allowed, through the concept of progressive historical development, the legitimisation of the violence of colonial practices in the name of the ‘civilisation of savages’, considered as a process as natural as the process of human maturation, of liberation from superstition, developed by Kant in his brief explanation of Aufklärung. The concept of man as a civilising agent influenced and legitimised the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas, at the origin of racism. “Savages”, “primitives”, “backward”, like “children” of Man, in a natural state which the European individual had overcome by inventing private property obtained by labour applied to nature, they were considered destined to become slaves. Western European practices being regarded as ‘universal’, the colonists had no choice but to govern them as they saw fit. Even if they were recognised as human beings (Spanish jurists took this issue very seriously in the 17th century), the natives were not human in the European sense, being defined by their lack of ‘superior’ European qualities. The colonists, on the other hand, had a humanitarian duty to civilise them, to ‘educate’ them, in the same spirit of their future usefulness. At the same time, the Europeans had a moral duty to invade their lands and take them over for agricultural exploitation; if they remained uncultivated, it would be an affront to nature and to the potential for land transformation, i.e. to progress, even if this transformation was to be carried out with local labour reduced to slavery and, after the wars and diseases brought by the Europeans to the Americas had decimated the indigenous population, with slaves imported from Africa. 

In addition to property, capitalism-humanism also needed labour. As Marx explains, the so-called primitive accumulation did not start from a frugal life that allowed capital to accumulate, but from the enclosure of common land, which left the poor of Europe without the means of subsistence. This gave rise to the proletariat, the class of people who owned nothing but their own labour, which they had to sell to capitalists in order to survive. The bourgeois capitalist class was to be made up of the owners of the means of production and, an often overlooked fact, rentiers, owners of either real estate or the media (or vectors) of communication, as in the case of what McKenzie Wark (2004, 2019) calls the “vector class”. The classical definition of man as one who takes possession of nature and subjugates it through his own labour power to extract value is transformed into one who says that man can also take ownership of labour power, through slavery (paid or unpaid), an idea justified by his own superior status to the poor, the indigenous “backward” in the colonies and even children, as in nineteenth-century England, when entrepreneurs seeking cheap labour to maximise profits in the booming textile and mining industries saw in poor children in urban areas a huge potential for exploitation, similar to that of the indigenous, making children the ‘backbone of industrialisation’ (Sommerville, 1982). Thus, by the age of five, poor children were often already working in factories, mines or on construction sites, unlike babies, who, having no economic value, were taken by their parents to work, where they had to endure the same conditions or die as a result of the administration of sedatives such as opium or molasses (Colón & Colón, 2001).

Women, children, indigenous people, workers are, however, only part of the monsters of capitalism-humanism. Human exceptionalism and industrialization have led to the exponential increase in the exploitation of non-human animals, which for Descartes, for example – impressed by the technological innovations of his age, especially automata (Helen Steward, 2015) – were mere biological mechanisms for the understanding of which only a kind of causal reasoning and anatomy is required. Thus, humans were entitled to treat them however cruelly if it would help them achieve their goals. The first animal rights protests (for an end to multiple vivisections on a single living animal, to be precise) in the early 20th century were closely linked to the Suffrage Movement (Linda Kalof, 2007). Used primarily as a labour force and a source of food, animals also served to emphasise human supremacy by highlighting the one thing that distinguishes them from animals: the self-conscious thinking substance that all other living things lack, whether they are called ‘reason’, ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’. Thus, it can be said that animals have also been ideologised, not just exploited, their condition often being similar to that of other categories subject to oppression. This can be readily seen in the case of zoos, where the contemplation of the strangeness of these different but related beings delighted the bourgeoisie, with African natives and non-human animals sharing the same territory behind fences and sometimes even the same cage until the latter part of the 20th century, when humans were finally liberated, unlike their relatives.


A.R. Colón & P.A. Colón, A History of Children: A Socio-Cultural Survey Across Millennia, Westport, Connecticut & London, Greenwood Press, 2001, p. 372.

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, 2004.

Linda Kalof, Looking at Animals in Human History, Reaktion Books, London, 2007.

Ashis Nandy, “Reconstructing Childhood: A Critique of the Ideology of Adulthood”, in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 56-76.

John Sommerville, The Rise and Fall of Childhood, Beverly Hills, London, New Delhi, SAGE Publications, 1982, p. 160.

Helen Steward, “Do Animals Have Free Will?”, in The Philosophers’ Magazine, no. 68, 2015, pp. 43-48.

McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, Harvard UP, 2004

McKenzie Wark, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, Verso, London, 2019.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, third edition, London, 1796.

Photo: Vasile Mihalache (source: Momchil Mihailov-Momo)

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