Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)
The ruin indexes both the hope and hubris of the futures that never came to pass – whether early capitalism’s promise of abundance and ease, or socialism’s vision of collective labour and equality.
– Caitlin DeSilvey and Tim Edensor, Reckoning with Ruins (2012)
August 8th, 2020: Italian artist Ryts Monet installs a neon sign atop a high scaffold over the remnants of a circular bastion of a fifteenth century castle located in Northern Italy, fifty kilometers from the remains of the iron curtain. The artist speculatively constructs a symbol, beginning with the transposal of a translation, the discovery of an anagram, within the final sentence of the Communist Manifesto.
WORKERS OF ALL
THE WORLD, UNITE!
The words of Marx and Engels, modified across translation and reinterpretation1, are forged into long, luminous tubes filled with red gas, pressurized and ionized by high potential voltage. The sign is designed to appear deteriorated: Only some letters are selectively lit, showing the original slogan during the day and a redaction when illuminated in the evening.
WORK S F ALL
T R U E!
The phrase WORKS FALL TRUE! emerges from the original slogan, awkwardly spaced like abandoned signs in front of roadside businesses, letters all pushed out of alignment, a phrase long separated from its promise, long after the doors have closed. The poetic reduction conjures fall, collapse; in Italian cadere, as in la morte, death; both the fall of works and the fall of workers, verifiable and sincere. The deteriorated slogan symbolizes the loss of the unrealized utopian promise of communism, a crumbling of past political ideology. The message shifts from a rallying cry to a warning, a premonition of collapse: instead of all international workers uniting in solidarity and organizing efforts, they are linked only by shared precarity.
Ryts Monet’s new ruin appears at a time when workers are suffering the biggest threats in centuries; when a global pandemic, the product of capitalism, is creating devastating social and economic consequences that have been compared to those of a natural disaster or world war. In the US, where I currently live, cracks in the system are more clear than ever: 30 million people are jobless from the economic recession and more than 6 million are infected with COVID-19. In many countries, cases continue to increase, businesses continue to shutter, and despite a shift towards even more digital and immaterial labor, some workers are still caught in the churn of production, facing exposure to a new wave of the pandemic. As individuals, workers are powerless in this system; with COVID-19 we are even further divided.
All works fall, all works collapse. In Ryts Monet’s redaction, workers collapse into works: the factories and their outputs. When the works fall, when the works collapse, what happens to the workers? Is anyone inside the factory? How many days will it take to sift through the rubble and find the bodies? How many outstanding reports and violations did the factory have? How many times did the management ignore warning signs, like cracks, tremors, or a dangerous bulge? Perhaps the fire hoses were too rotted to work, their valves rusted shut, the firefighters’ ladders didn’t quite reach the top floors and everyone panicked as the fire spread. Surely the workers were overworked, underpaid, too exhausted to flee. Presumably, the building expanded to increase capacity: built up and out, packed with machines and conveyor belts and bodies, expanded without permits. Who was the investor in this factory? Are they overleveraged? Who holds the mortgage, the title? Who was in charge? Who is to blame? How much money was lost from the stoppage of production? How many insurance claims were filed, processed, won, or denied? Who got paid for processing these claims? When were the workers expected to return to work? Was it the following day?
As our present approaches the “future of work,” the warning signs of collapse become even harder to see. Production is increasingly immaterial, increasing demand for bits and bytes that burns coal in distant data centers. Labor unions are replaced with reputation systems and gamification, the division of labor happens across global microtasking platforms, and gig workers drive rideshares and push shopping carts, their bodies proxies for the risk others won’t take.
Ryts Monet makes a ruin in August 2020, when cities and institutions are undergoing catastrophic processes of destruction, through accident and disaster, police violence, corruption, fascism, pandemic, economic collapse; while monuments are being torn down; amidst a widening devastation of futures that cannot happen, against a backdrop of future ruins that have already arrived. The faded memory of the slogan transmits our current crisis of work, where labor is precarious and workers are overworked, weakened and powerless; where institutions are staggering on the edge of collapse.
Situating the fallen message of Marx and Engels atop an old ruin—ruin literally as ruere, “to fall” in Latin—Ryts Monet’s monument stacks a new conceptual ruin upon the old physical ruin. The neon sign sits on scaffolding—literally and figuratively—of the past, and tries to salvage from the rubble both collapsed ideas and a revolutionary spirit that says: We, as workers, must organize, or else. We are large in numbers, and it is long overdue that we unite together in the face of the crisis caused by capitalism.
On August 4th, 2020, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, ending over 150 lives, wounding thousands more, leaving hundreds of thousands more without homes, devastated. Reports from the ground, on Twitter, describe the heat, the sound, the complete flattening of everything. In a televised interview, Lebanese President Michel Aoun made an official statement that the cause of the explosion was “either by negligence or a missile attack.”2
Ammonium nitrate, NH4NO3, used as both a fertilizer and an explosive, is an emblematic compound of late capitalism. An ample supply of natural gas, usually extracted by fracking, is required to make the fertilizer form, the use of which is compulsory in industrial-scale agriculture, especially the production of new, hybrid, high-yielding strains of corn. As an explosive, NH4NO3 appears in ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil), a bulk explosive used for mining, construction and other industrial applications. The storage of ammonium nitrate is a sensitive operation: Because it builds under pressure, it requires a fire-proof site with carefully engineered pipes and drains.
Negligence becomes a missile. In Beirut, as in capitalism more generally, private investors attempt to maximize profit, even at the expense of life. The story is incomprehensible. A 15-year civil war ended in 1990, reconstruction began, as “warring parties finally realized that there was more money to be made through peace.”3 A private holding company buys up much of Beirut’s downtown to build a “shiny new city out of its ruins.”4 The government resigns and is replaced in the short term with a government that has no power, only to be asked to resign in order to be replaced with the original government. A cycle of collapse and attempts to rebuild.
Seven years ago: A mass quantity of explosives appeared in the Beirut harbor. Four workers are trapped on a ship with said explosives. Their employer won’t pay them. The port authority wants to abandon the ship. There’s a questionable negotiation between a corrupt government and a private investor. The chemical compound is moved from a ship to a warehouse. Later, workers are sent to maintain the warehouse door, to patch a hole. Unaware of a stockpile of explosives inside, the repair sets these explosives on fire. The fire spreads. The fire department sends workers in. The compound becomes the catalyst for an explosion. There is a flash of light, a sound wave, a pressure wave. Debris is found as far as two miles from the site of the explosion. The ship that previously held the explosives, sinks to the floor of the sea. Lives are tallied as bodies. People head to the streets. Ammonium nitrate mixes with tear gas. The government resigns. (A friend texts: can a government do that?) The city is in ruins.
The city is in ruins, news articles on the internet say. What has to fall for a city to become a ruin? Or does it just have to look like a ruin? It seems like a precipitous diagnosis: a city immediately being classified as a ruin, while it’s inhabitants are there, looking for bodies. Fresh wounds when people have just started picking up the pieces, cleaning the glass, measuring windows for replacement, assessing if a building is no longer habitable and needs to be completely destroyed. The tendency of our forensic investigations is to immediately pinpoint the specific compound and the moment it exploded and why, without taking on the decades and cycles of neglect that led us there. How do we account for the long interval of time that led to this moment of destruction? Beirut was already overindexed, overleveraged and overburdened just waiting for that spark to come along. How many things are sitting on the edge of collapse just waiting to fall apart? What crisis will it take for us to rethink the systems and structures we inhabit, to become more caring?
What kind of thing is a ruin? When we think of a ruin, we think monumental, overgrown, crumbling, desolate; a reduction to rubble; decay, collapse, disintegration.
A ruin encompasses both materiality and process. Ruins can be fast and/or slow: they “happen” quickly or violently as a product of wartime destruction, weapons, acts of God, acts of extreme weather, explosion, implosion, collapse; or they materialize slowly, imperceptibly, from lack of maintenance, mounting precarity, abandonment, negligence and oversight, corruption, laws and loopholes, loose policies, wind and water, the gradual settling of particles of rock and sand, the steady pull of gravity, the growth of vegetation, the passing of time. Ruins are made, not just found. Ann Stoler reminds us:
Large-scale ruin-making takes resources and planning that may involve forced removal of populations and new zones of uninhabitable space, reassigning inhabitable space and dictating how people are supposed to live in them. As such, these ruin-making endeavors are typically state projects, ones that are often strategic, nation building, and politically charged.5
Ruins are also made in mundane ways, through a lack of upkeep, a lack of attention, a lack of accountability, a lack of organization, no one with the energy or time for repair and care.
Ruins are, as Robert Smithson writes, “the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.”6 We default to thinking of ruins as remnants of the past, perhaps because they often represent a loss—of past investment, financial, emotional, or time. Yet, in ruins, we also see the future; the possible scenarios that bring about (de)construction, including violence, upheaval and devastation. Through ruins, we imagine the end of the world, or the end of civilization.
The ruin can, all at once, inspire utopian visions and collective resistance, serve as a painful reminder of loss, and embody the process of remembering. (Which reminds us that people can also become ruins.) Ruins become the material debris of hopes and dreams that didn’t play out as planned; they are physical metaphors for past ideological failure; they provide historical foundations—conceptual and literal—upon which future structures will be (re)built; yet ruins stand in the present moment, where all these slices of time collide.
“It looks like an earthquake came through, not a hurricane.”
“It looks like a bomb went off, not a fire.”
Like an earthquake, like a hurricane, like a war zone, like a tornado, like an explosion, like a tsunami, like a “terrible attack.”
Like a battleground, like heartbreak.
It looks like a bunch of well-cleared lots where finance capital can put up plywood barriers around the edges and affix renderings of futuristic condos. It looks like the potential for high ROI.
“It looks like a bomb went off in here,” my Mamma used to say to me when she’d come home, and into my childhood bedroom, where I would entertain myself alone for hours while she worked her shift.
It looks like possibility, it looks like the future. It looks like we better get to work.
But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate.
A Note on New Ruins, Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (1953)
In Ryts Monet’s 2019 video “WORKERS, FROM ALL COUNTRIES UNITE! FORWARD! COMRADES LET S BOLDLY UI U GREA CAUS !…” the artist visits the Buzludzha Monument, situated high in the Balkan Mountains, built to honor the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1981 and abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. The saucer-shaped, brutalist monument is now derelict and overgrown; green tufts of grass emerge from every crack and gap in the concrete. In the video, the artist methodically sweeps layers of chalky dust from the stairs of the futurist, utopian structure, whose entrance is flanked on both sides by a Cyrillic inscription with missing letters, from which the piece gets its title.
Ryts Monet’s symbolic gesture of care evokes flashbacks of the speech that communist leader Todor Zhivkov gave in the monument’s opening ceremony in August 1981: that the monument should “never fall into disrepair”; and that future visitors to the monument should “feel that spirit that ennobles us…as we empathise with the ideas and dreams of our forefathers, so let us experience that same excitement today!”7 Zhivkov’s hopeful message was mislaid: The physical structure and the utopian ideals it represented would both, with time, fall.
What is tragic about the video is not just the visual gap between the potential of the monument’s architecture and its present state of decay, a material representation of the deterioration of political ideals; rather, it is the strained, solitary labor of Ryts Monet, an individual protagonist alone in the sisyphean task of upkeep, taken in contrast against the backdrop of Marx and Engels’ call for unity and solidarity among workers. The work hauntingly asserts that it is impossible for “caring individuals” taking “individual ethical responsibility” to transform society “without the need for any kind of political solution or systemic reorganization”8, and warns of the dangers of “methodological individualism of the capitalist realist worldview.”9
We are dying on the vine as it were, there isn’t many more than a dozen of us left. You can’t call this a political party. The bulk of our funds go to the paying of rent for the Headquarters and the Kerr storeroom. I am not at all clear about what can be done.
Correspondence of John Davis to Al Wysocki, May Day, 196310
The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan holds the archives of the papers of the Proletarian Party, a small working-class Marxist communist political party from Detroit, Michigan. Around 1920, the party emerged after a split from the Socialist Party of Michigan, with a desire to move theoretical study to participation in electoral politics. The party was known for their ownership of Charles H. Kerr & Co., the oldest publisher of Marxist books in America who released the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto in the US. When the party disintegrated in 1968, its official records were torn by hand into quarters, halves; ruins.
Twenty linear feet of documents—General Correspondence, Mundane Official Correspondence, and Other Material—are permanently housed in offsite storage and can be requested in the reading room. Some are reconstructed, but most exist as fragments. Carbon copies demarcated as “top left,” “bottom left,” or “some miscellaneous portion of the original page,” require the researcher to reassemble individual letters in order to make them legible. Many of the records are fragmentary and undated. But in spite of incompleteness, the papers tell a story of the compelling revolutionary ideas, people, and mechanisms that built a movement, and trace a gradual decay from animated to weary as the “mundane correspondence” becomes more mundane and the maintenance of the party wears on its shrinking membership base. The final folder of Mundane Official Correspondence includes a final report from a ground-down member: “only one that shows up is myself and Bennie so we keep postponing it and contact the other members and they always have excuses so…it looks like local Detroit is finished.”
Another socialist party falls, this time, in a sudden combustion. The International Socialist Organization existed from 1977-2019 as the largest and strongest revolutionary socialist organization in the United States. A Marxist organization advocating for socialism from below, the ISO focused on equality, liberation, workers’ power, internationalism and socialism over capitalism.
But in 2019, the organization suddenly fell to pieces, collapsed, seemingly in an instant, after a leadership mishandling of a sexual assault in 2013 became public. The ISO voted to dissolve amidst disillusionment and disgust. But long before the collapse, there were “tremors that preceded the earthquake”11: The ISO had issues around accountability, transparency, openness and democracy. There was a history of internal political debates centering class, while attempts to raise issues of race and gender were generally not acknowledged by the organization. At one point, the organization did make a concerted effort to “acknowledge feminism” by rewriting some core documents, but culturally, feminism never became an organization practice; those who tried to promote feminism were met with hostility and shut down. Eventually, new leadership was elected to the organization, but one of the new candidates that was voted in had been accused of rape. The leadership and members of the organization suppressed the case.12
How do institutions—such as a political party that imagined a better world free of oppression and exploitation, whose core efforts worked to unite the working class against the divisions and oppressions capitalism asserts along lines of sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.—collapse as the result of power structures, abuse, sexism and negligence? Even in activist circles, where the collective project is justice and self-emancipation, this story is so familiar that it feels like a template for collapse. After the fall of formations like the ISO, and the scattering of its members, many of whom had devoted decades to building the project, how should revolutionaries organize themselves? What, if anything, can be salvaged? What kind of thing is the ruin of a political party made from radicalized individuals who are now divided, but who may seek revolutionary politics in the future?
Sometimes a ruin looks more like an absence; a vacant lot; a gap in the skyline; a contaminated patch of soil where nothing will grow; a line of bricks or rocks where a wall used to stand; an unintelligible collection of letters that used to spell words; an incomplete collection of documents, ripped along fault lines, pasted back together, but reconstituted incomplete.
1,400 building facades in New York City, 39 high rises in San Francisco in need of seismic retrofit, 14,207 buildings in Mumbai, at least 37 garment factories worldwide, a slow-burning fire moving toward a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste in the center of the US, Canada’s last fully intact ice shelf, tens of thousands of cans of tomatoes with botulism stored in prepper cellars, oil rigs in the middle of the ocean from the pressure of drilling, defects, corroded pipes and valves, malfunctioning equipment, damaged tongs and cables and inadequate safety measures, the euro, the dollar, the lira, cryptocurrency, fiscal federalism, the US real estate bubble, the job market, the gig economy, California’s electric grid, 240 worldwide underground mineshafts, American Democracy, the lungs of 30,124 worldwide critical COVID-19 patients, 6,000 gas grills in the US (based on annual statistics), Brexit, Frexit, Grexit, Italexit, “the whole EU house of cards,” the SS Richard Montgomery, a 75-year old decaying shipwreck which contains enough munitions to create a tsunami near London…
In ruin-time, some have proposed to call the period that precedes the ruin’s reclamation as a symbol the interval of neglect.13 Collapse happens in an instant, after years of slow rot due to negligence. There’s just not enough time, and we’ll get to it tomorrow. Maintenance is deferred, surfaces slowly chip away, sites are abandoned for decades, left to fall apart. Small issues — details, really — are ignored, but over time, build and become heavy. Yet, these intervals don’t have much to do with a static sense of time. Nuclear explosions are measured and documented to the millisecond, but unfold for hundreds of thousands of years. The underlying preconditions for collapse can be set for decades. Where do we mark the “beginning” of a collapse, and where and how do we mark the end?
To understand the interval of neglect, we need to think about how time is felt in the body. The feeling of time while watching a collapse, over and over again, like the video loop of the twin towers falling on American television after 9/11. The moment of long, draping quiet between the flash of light from an explosion, its shock wave, and its sound wave. The protracted hours in an eight-hour work day. The feeling of suspension amidst the unfolding ruin-making of the economy during the coronavirus lockdown. The feeling of searching for a loved one amidst the rubble, in which seconds feel like days; the slow, deceleration of time that accompanies an increasing anticipation of when you will see each other again.
If we, as workers, have a world to win, we must gain the understanding that the line between a ruin and a non-ruin is always some temporal interval of neglect in which we become divided and maintenance falls away. We see this in the past, in the future, and where we are right now, in the present. We need to sweep the steps. Care, conservation and preservation—accountability, organization and attention—must be built into the systems and structures we inhabit; constant and collectivized. The words of Marx and Engels called us to do this through organization; through unity within and across unions and across borders and oceans; against bosses and capitalism; with demands for modification of flows of capital for improved working conditions, pay, protections and safety. We must heed the warning that if we do not unite, works will fall.
Thanks to Rose Linke, Fabiola Hanna, Gelare Khoshgozaran, James McAnally and Sarah Burke for feedback and editorial guidance.
This essay was first published in MARCH 01.
Andrea Steves is an artist, curator, researcher, and organizer currently based in Brooklyn. Her recent projects deal with museums and public history, monuments and memorials, and the complex legacies of the Cold War. Andrea also works in the collective FICTILIS and the Center for Hydrosocial Studies, and is co-founder of the Museum of Capitalism. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center For Capitalism Studies at The New School.