Rewriting Capital as Nitrogen: The rise of Nr-ism
Other conference contribution, 2012

In his discussion on the emergence of modern capitalism in Egypt, Timothy Mitchell (2002) highlights the roles played by non-human entities such as mosquitos and fertilizers. Thus, Mitchell argues that capitalism has no singular logic, but rather ”survives parasitically… drawing its energies from the chemistry of others” (2002: 303). Therefore, social scientists need to take such non-human agents and materials into account when discussing the economy. Indeed, the 20th century growth in populations and economies cannot be dissociated from the advent of anthropogenic fixation of nitrogen. (Smil, 2001) This man-made accelleration of the nitrogen cycle is sometimes used as an indicator of the rise of the Anthropocene. (Steffen, 2011) This paper will explore the connection between the concept of capitalism, on the one hand, and the intensification of this ”nitrogen cascade” (Galloway & Cowling, 2002: 67), on the other. In this endeavour, it draws upon Deleuze and Guattari's (1988) reading of Marx' Capital, which emphasises the contingent origins of capitalism, construed as that cycle of accummulation that starts at the point where free reservoirs of labor and capital start to react with each other. The text will thus relate the dramatic accummulation of reactive nitrogen (Nr) to Marx' ideas about capital accummulation. Along with ”capitalism”, the paper suggests, the economy and society is also to be understood as a ”Nr-ism”. This -ism is construed as a cycle of accummulation set off during the first half of the 20th century, as airborne N2 was turned into a reservoir for reactive nitrogen. This somewhat speculative analogy, it will be argued, serves to decenter the notion of capital in our ways of construing the economy, thus helping us orient ourselves in relation to the anthropocene.


Karl Palmås

Chalmers, Technology Management and Economics, Entrepreneurship and Strategy

"Co-producing the Anthropocene?", Södertörn University, 29 March

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Areas of Advance

Building Futures (2010-2018)


Subject Categories

Environmental Engineering

Agricultural Science


Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified

More information