On Semiotic Capitalism: Rejecting Idealism and Embracing a Materialist Revolutionary Line. By: Will WhiteRead Now
With the everyday rise in media consumption and “sick” new NFTs dropping every day, it is easy to wonder how capitalism operates in an increasingly digitized age. A handful of “Marxists” investigate how capitalism influences our consumption of information and signs. Such thinkers forward an understanding of capital as something semiotic or symbolic in nature. These theories of capital can be categorized as a part of revisionist idealism. I aim to briefly introduce the discussion around semiotics, capitalism, and a conclusion that favors a stance rooted in materialism.
Semiotics refers to the study of signs and their interpretation. This is distinct from epistemology, the study of knowledge, in that epistemic inquiry investigates how we learn about an object. Semiotics delve into questions on how we understand what symbol someone refers to when someone refers to that object. By extension, semiotic capitalism calls attention to the idea that capitalism has coded all semiotics and bodies to their relationship to capital. Franco Bifo Berardi, in his article “Emancipation of the Sign: Poetry and Finance During the Twentieth Century,” writes that capitalism is no longer a physical economy but rather a precarious one based on knowledge and signs-commodities; in other words, capital is no longer a material phenomenon. Therefore, the messages that we communicate are viewed as a unit measured by use and exchange value instead of what is capital T truth.
Semiotic capitalism could have damning implications on revolutionary engagement. For instance, something like the image of Che Guevara is used as a symbol to accumulate capital instead of propaganda to galvanize revolutionaries. Scholars attribute two leading causes for this image’s viral impact during the 1960s. First, his involvement in a successful revolution made him an intriguing symbol for folks worldwide. Second, some scholars argued that his handsome physique makes his portrait desirable. This made Guevara a marketable image to sell products that now have the idea of a revolution attached to them while at the same time reinforcing capitalist economies under the guise of “relatability”. Capitalist sign exchange also establishes a dominant form of semiotic systems. Those who do not fit the mode of existence that produces symbolic capital are viewed as unproductive and thus deviant. For instance, if the symbol of the cis-heterosexual white man is ideal for accumulating capital, then those who do not fit that are to assimilate or violently be erased.
Bifo’s prescription to semiotic capitalism is to isolate an act of language to escape the technical automation of capitalism and produce a new form of life. He suggests that poetry exceeds the established meaning of words in communicative spaces and thus expand the imaginary beyond the captures of semiotic capitalism. However, this prescription saps revolutionary potential in resisting capitalism. There is a significant issue with the way Bifo perceives semiotic capitalism and its remedy. Bifo’s conception of capital negates the fundamental premise of dialectical materialism. Forwarding the theory that capital has transcended from the material to semiotics indicates that capital functions outside the superstructure of capitalist modes of production. I.e., class antagonisms are being framed as a question of symbolic exchange instead of material repression of the working class. This saps revolutionary potential among the people because it miseducates them and thus splits any focus on a single material capitalist structure in favor of pursuing abstract academic Marxism. The impact of such revisionism upholds the ideological hegemony of the imperial “left,” whose focus is not invested in the direct liberation of the people. In other words, these forms of theorizing capital do not work as revolutionary strategies and abandon the immediate material struggles of black, brown, and indigenous proletarians. After all, theory without practice that is not axiomatically rooted in material and militant resistance of the U.S. empire and vice versa are all gateways to new forms of liberalism.
So, how should we approach understanding this relationship between capitalism and semiotics? Linguistics and Economics by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi help us here by exploring the material relationship between semiotics and capitalism. Landi identifies social reproduction as a material process in which the needs and conditions of material life determine just about everything.  Under this assumption, even if the exchange of signs is non-material, that exchange can only happen with the production and reproduction of bodies and objects from which the signs are born. For example, the premise “Will is silly” relies on the signifier Will existing. Landi also suggests that the sign value of communication is contingent upon satisfying the demand within the dialectical market that satisfies bourgeois needs and desires.  This indicates that capitalism may alter how we consume signs. However, the material conditions under capitalism shape the power dynamic that demands particular types of exchange. We must then conclude that only a revolutionary line of action rooted in materialism and helping the masses can resolve capitalism on both the “semiotic” and material levels. This does not deny semiotic coding onto black and brown bodies. Instead, opponents of capitalism should not precisely sever capital from the material, and remember that the coding of deviancy can only be born from the meaning derived from physical bodies.
An increasingly digital age should not distract us from material lines of praxis and theory. Revisionism has plagued academic circles to continue producing liberal idealism and deviate from an analysis that promotes action that directly helps the people. Lip service to semiotics does not change the reality that capital is still, in fact, rooted in the material. Additionally, the ability to produce and reproduce information or bodies that produce meaning is still reliant on the material structure of capitalism in which the setter bourgeoisie continue to maintain their profits.
 Berardi, Franco B. “Emancipation of the Sign: Poetry and Finance During the Twentieth Century.” e-flux vol.39 (November 2012).
 Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff, Chevolution, 2008
 Berardi. “Emancipation of the Sign.”
 Rossi-Landi, Ferruccio. Linguistics and Economics. The Hague: Mouton, 1977. 51
 Ibid., 58
Will White recently received a bachelor of arts in history from UCLA. They spent lots of time in forensics during undergrad dedicated to researching political theory from authors like Bataille, Baudrillard, Nietzsche, and Marx. Will is currently applying to grad programs in hopes to continue investigating how to use Marxism to study rhetoric.
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