Philosopher Timothy Morton Says There's a Bug in Marxist Theory — Solidarity Should Include the Nonhuman


Timothy Morton is a leading philosopher in the object-oriented ontology movement and a professor of English at Rice University. He became well-known for challenging the ways in which we think of nature as separate from ourselves, and by introducing his work in nonacademic spaces (collaborating with artists like Björk and Pharrell Williams) he has redefined how society interacts with philosophy. We spoke with him about his latest book Humankind, wherein he argues anthropocentrism is a bug in Marxist theory.

MFU: What is the ‘symbiotic real’ and how is the traditional notion of ‘nature’ a reified distortion of the symbiotic real?

TM: The symbiotic real is my way of naming what this terrestrial biosphere, which includes us, actually is. It consists of overlapping beings, all in more or less uneasy kinds of coexistence with one another, hosting and being hosted. The concept Nature, by contrast, is a reified and alienated version of this state of affairs, in which we see our own human capacities either standing over against everything else, or as just another mechanically functioning part of everything else, that we can’t do anything about. Nature is the inverse of the god concept, another kind of alienation. 

MFU: In Humankind you write that a “specter is haunting the specter of communism: the specter of the nonhuman.” You go on to say that Marx’s anthropocentrism was a bug in his theory. Why is the inclusion of the nonhuman essential to solidarity?

TM: I argue that Marxism only works at all if it includes nonhumans deep down at its heart. It’s radical. I’m not saying we can put some green polish on Marxism. I’m saying that since the symbiotic real is entangled with other lifeforms, in deep ways, since that nonhumanness is actually on the “inside” of us (think of your stomach bacteria), since the very concept of species being half says this already, then Marxism must only work this way, and that neglecting nonhumans (and all that they stand for, for instance a certain behavioral, algorithmic “passivity”) has been part of why attempts to actualize Marxism have failed. It will only work on a planetary scale, not just an international one. What’s the bug? In a word, the teleological anthropocentrism Marx inherits from Hegel. I argue that you can remove this bug and the Marxism functions much better. 

MFU: You’ve said if a “more ecologically attuned society is to arise then it’s going to be about increasing pleasure rather than increasing efficiency and control.” What did you mean?

TM: Being nice to polar bears is nice for them and we can learn to make it be nice for us. Communism is more pleasure, not less, for more beings. Unfortunately traditional ecological ideology is very hostile to consumerism, as are some forms of Marxism. What’s wrong with consumerism is that it’s a 50dpi resolution image of the kinds of pleasure we take in attending to other beings. When you get to 3000dpi you find it’s a whole different thing. Ecological politics serves the enemy exactly where it claims to be hostile to it. 

MFU: You’ve said that the struggle against racism and the struggle against fascism are both ecological struggles. Can you talk about this?

TM: Speciesism is structured by racism. The differences humans make (physical and otherwise) between themselves and other lifeforms is predicated on the differences they have made between themselves. Therefore destroying racism will get us to the polar bears much faster. 

MFU: Why are you vegan?

TM: Eating a little bit less meat is the best thing an individual can do for the biosphere right now. It’s easy and not expensive, unlike buying a Tesla, which actually doesn’t do as much.