Max Haiven’s central idea is that revenge is inherent to capitalism, particularly late capitalism, which he describes as a “vengeful tyrant”. While Marx and Engels recognise the legitimate vengeful violence of the working class against capitalism, they see no strategic advantage in the concept of revenge, he argues.
Haiven argues there is an advantage, however, because revenge is created by the violent displacement of people and seizure of lands and resources (through colonialism, slavery and enclosure). Capitalism was justified by the notion that ‘primitive’ societies needed to be ‘civilised’ to prevent cycles of revenge-based violence.
So, those who experience and resist the oppression of capitalism are labelled ‘vengeful’ and ‘violent’, while the real violence is meted out by the economic and political institutions of capitalism itself.
Moreover, colonialism creates an ‘unpayable debt’ in the colonised: they are forever expected to pay for the ‘gift’ of civilisation by being ‘good citizens’.
Haiven uses the example of “pre-emptive revenge” against black communities in the US. Share-cropping, convict leasing and lynch mobs were ways of disciplining the freed black population into being ‘good citizens’ who would not seek revenge for slavery. But, unpayable debts work both ways, Haiven argues.
The violence unleashed upon the victims of capitalism means the debt they are owed can never be repaid. There might be campaigns for reparations, but money alone cannot repay great historical injustices. This can only be repaid by destroying the oppressive system itself and forming a new one.
The idea of unpayable debt, therefore, creates an “avenging imaginary” with which the oppressed collectively recognise and transform their shared fate.
Haiven’s example is Touissant L’Overture’s famous speech, “I am undertaking the vengeance of my race… Unite, brothers.” Haiven argues the Haitian revolutionaries’ first act of vengeance was describing themselves as friends and brothers, collectively assigning themselves a value beyond that of property.
By imagining that the system owed them more, they unified and became a collective force that could fight and ultimately defeat slavery in Haiti.
This is an intriguing idea, and the author’s exploration of slavery, colonialism and resistance is fascinating.
Examples from literature, film, art, comics and television are used to demonstrate culture’s ability to vividly depict the devastation capitalism wreaks on all aspects of ordinary people’s lives.
Drug addiction, and an addiction to a banal, anesthetising culture, are explored as logical consequences of “revenge from above”. These ultimately lead to “dead zones of the imagination”, whereby the oppressed cannot imagine any alternatives. It is this, Haiven argues, that makes imagination radical.
He is correct that culture and imagination are essential to humanity, but overstates its importance in resisting capitalism. This is familiar in academia. Post-Marxist, postmodernist and post-structuralist writers attack capitalism, but suggest we might be able to “think” our way out of it.
Influenced by Derrida, Jameson, Foucault and others, the conclusion the book draws is that we need analysis, rather than action.
This is frustrating, as the excellent stories of imaginative resistance he describes could be coupled with a more practical way for the working class to exact its vengeance and free itself from the vengeful tyrant of capitalism.
Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital and the Settling of Unpayable Debts