The Whole Snake
Jessie Kindig is the editor of Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet—and What We Can Do About It by Nancy Fraser, on sale September 20 and a selection in our Book Club. See all our late summer and early fall book club selections.
When it was time to draft the cover design for Nancy Fraser’s new book Cannibal Capitalism, Nancy and I knew exactly what it should look like—a rare position to be in for a work of political theory. It had to have the ouroboros, the serpent bent in a circle eating its own tail, an image that appears again and again in Nancy’s book to invoke the self-defeating and destructive appetites of capitalism.
Cannibal Capitalism began life as a simple essay collection, bringing together Nancy’s trenchant work from the pages of New Left Review and elsewhere. But we quickly realized, when we began consulting on the table of contents, that all the pieces were intimately connected; not a thematic essay collection but a through-written book that Nancy, in the precise and methodological way that makes her political analysis so valuable, had been writing piece by piece over the past several years. Nancy identified the chapters that had yet to be written to make the book whole, and we set about revising what had been discrete sections into a picture of the entire ouroboros, the entire snake with its insatiable appetite.
And what does that entire snake look like? As Nancy carefully details, capitalism systematically destroys the sectors of society—the work of care, the environment, a democratic polity—that it needs to survive, and has an in-built tendency to racialize, punish, and control whole populations. Once we see the whole snake, it also becomes clear that “capitalism” is by no means solely economic, nor just about labor, nor just about the means of production—but also needs the often-gendered work of care, needs democracy, needs a healthy environment, needs the ability to racialize and punish in order to live. In many ways, what Cannibal Capitalism gives us is an easily graspable, elegant synthesis that draws together decades of work from many scholars and activists into one whole: Nancy looks to social reproduction theory, the traditions of Black Marxism, ecological Marxism, and more, bringing insights from multiple traditions together so we can see what it is that is killing us, and our world.
If you can see the entire snake, she says—well, it means we know how to kill it. More than understanding why crisis seems to follow immediately upon crisis these days, Cannibal Capitalism argues that we can fight capitalism by starving it to death. That is: socialists and activists can deny the snake the right to eat democracy, kill the planet, imprison and harm us, destroy our ability to care for one another. Socialism: it’s not just a buzzword, Nancy writes, nor a fad, nor a naive hope. It’s what we have to have to keep the snake from chomping all the way down its tail until it eats its own mouth, our world, and all of us.
I’m pushing the ouroboros analogy paragraphs and paragraphs past where a responsible editor should have stopped. But this is in the spirit of the text: I had more fun editing this book and working with Nancy than I have editing any other book about crisis and devastation (and, working at Verso, I edit many such books). This is because Nancy was committed to making the book readable and engaging to people who would otherwise not be inclined to read critical Marxist theory, and the best way to do this was to play with the central metaphor: the idea of cannibalism, insatiable appetites, and animals eating their own tails. Thus, the reader will find a book that begins “Are we Toast?” and moves through chapters called “Omnivore,” “Glutton for Punishment,” and “Nature in the Maw.” It’s not just whistling in the dark—it’s practical fun! Go defend an abortion clinic, shut down a pipeline, build a union, close a jail—and remember that what you are doing is not just fighting locally but fighting for all of us: helping to starve the entire snake.
– Jessie Kindig,
Brooklyn, NY, August, 2022